Neo-folkie Ben Harper’s latest album isn’t quite as revolutionary as the music that came from Bob Dylan’s plugged-in Strat at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, but on The Will to Live, Harper embraces electrified rock more than ever before. The result finds Harper’s acoustic strum doing battle with Zeppelin-esque bombast — a decidedly healthy tension. Even beyond the blare, Will proves to be Harper’s most sonically varied release, flitting from the mariachi accents and jazzy sax of “Ashes” to the roots-reggae riddims of “Jah Work”; Harper even cooks up a low-fi blues shuffle on “Homeless Child.”
Unfortunately, while Harper has grown musically, he’s still stunted when it comes to lyrics — and when you’re working a sensitive singer/songwriter persona, that’s fatal. Limp poesy like “There is no night, there is no day/It is all one shade of gray” (from “Homeless Child”) runs rampant on Will, and lines like “A heart speaks louder than a color can” bring to mind a politically correct Hallmark card.
It’s too bad, since Harper’s voice remains an amazing instrument, a raspy burr that dances in the chasm between Cat Stevens and Al Green. If Harper could use those vocals to, say, explore the emotional demons that are the stock in trade of singer/songwriters, he could be a force to be reckoned with. If he doesn’t bring some personal gravity to his grooves, Harper (as he sings on “Faded”) just might be “faded like a forgotten dream” sooner than he expects.