While the name of his 1994 debut, Welcome to the Cruel World, implies a melancholy mood, his steadily growing fan base has been anything but cruel to him. Even back then, he knew how to combine sadness ("Walk Away," "Waiting On An Angel") with joy ("Mama's Got A Girlfriend Now," "Breakin' Down"), even if the upbeat songs talked about heartache and despair; he turned sadness into beauty. His diversity, especially on albums like The Will To Live -- each of the record's twelve songs were written in slightly varying styles, from reggae and funk to rock and blues -- has afforded him the opportunity to reach so many ears, so many hearts. Forming a new band, Relentless7, for his latest release, White Lies For Dark Times, nothing has changed.
In fact, you'd be hard put to distinguish this album from the others, which were backed by the band once known as the Innocent Criminals. Sure, there are subtle nuances: there is a bit more focus on guitar, especially soloing; the drums are slightly busier, the bass slightly bustier, a la "Lay There and Hate Me." The production is sharp yet muddy, exhibiting the live quality which Harper seems to crave and caress from his songs. The lyrics, the delivery, the passion and drive: all Ben Harper. Some things don't need to change much to remain important.
Perhaps that part of Harper's mystique, his straightforwardness. Living in an era dictated by trends, he has done nothing more than perform the music arising from and embedded within his heart. His consistency demands respect. As he told me in an interview on the brink of 1999's Burn to Shine:
There's never been another road for me; it was going to be the music I make or no music. It's not like it was a choice. This is how I've learned by the discipline it takes to constantly grow through progress in a craft, which, for me, is music. It takes all the energy I have to really focus on my own creativity. I really don't even have a moment to sit and rest and consider what's going on in that other world of music. It's not that I don't keep up with popular music. I'm ready to listen to anyone from Beth Orton to Gov't Mule to Everclear for that matter. There's always music that's going on that's really good regardless of what it sells or its reflection to the masses. That's where I put my focus.
A decade later and this message has not been quieted. The twelve songs on White Lies predominantly feature an adrenalized Harper. "Why Must You Always Dress in Black" scorches, a blues-fueled electric guitar cavalcade; the same can be said of the first single, "Simmer and Shine." And "Keep it Together (So I Can Fall Apart)," possibly the album's most impressive and domineering cut, rivals "Ground on Down" for the best use of the inimitable and essential "rock scream." Coming off the mostly quiet Lifeline, and the mainly relaxed two disc Both Sides of the Gun, White Lies is a return to rebellious, boisterous and yet tasteful display of aggression.
Of course softer moments await your ears. "Faithfully Remain" is one of those ballads that sticks inside your mind, the way "Amen Omen" and "Another Lonely Day" hang around long after the stereo is off. "Skin Thin" is another one destined for those times when Harper asks the band to leave the stage and sits down with his acoustic and a smile, even if that smile is offered as an acute awareness of so much pain in the world. That seems to be the man's creative raison d'être: to transform despair and suffering into something nearly palpable, to massage the fears from your heart and mind; to remind you that you're not alone in the struggle. It's why fans listen to him and feel that he is talking to them -- his ability to exhaust the range of human emotions makes his messages universal and singular simultaneously. No small task.
The hardest part about listening to White Lies? Trying the faulty Internet player that Virgin requires its reviewers to listen with, low quality mp3s that inevitably skip and freeze along the way. This is not hard to understand: large record labels are interested in product, not music, and so the quality of the presentation is not as important as the "safety" of the songs. (Never mind the waiver I have to click on in order to access the site.) For artists like Harper, and many others like him, who spend hours upon hours refining their sound to the highest quality possible, listening to the clunky player chug along completely destroys the experience of listening to music. Because yes, some of us still prefer to listen to albums as they were intended: as albums, complete unto themselves. This is impossible on these watermarked streams. You either have to click one song at a time, which could take a minute each to load, or deal with skips of the full record stream, which, by song eight, became impossible to stomach.
It's a conundrum we cannot expect ourselves to dissect; no clear discernible answers arise to the questions: Why must those whose interest lays in music for music's sake be held accountable by the forces of capital? Do we all have to call in Radiohead's management to defend us in court? Why must music suffer so that the people whose interest is in what the music brings them and not the music itself don't? Dark times indeed. I cannot speculate Harper's feelings on this, and I don't want to suggest he would agree with any of this. But I do hope he recognizes that by now his audience is large enough to not have to rely on those powers; he has his own industry at this point, and could easily release his own material (contractual obligations aside) and do splendidly well for himself. Art supports the internal life, but can also support the daily life as well.
The ways in which we buy and distribute music have changed, but the meaning of music to those of us who love music has not. In shifting times like this, it is up to both audience and artist to shift their perspectives as well, to preserve what is most sacred to us. Firstly: do not treat music as product, even if you're selling it. Profits quests do not require shiftiness. This idea goes well beyond a singular complaint about a faulty online player; yet sometimes the singular becomes the universal in the proper context. Let's focus on those things that music has always helped us understand: dealing with heartache, greed, struggle, strife, coming out the other side unscathed, stronger, more compassionate. That way we won't need to feed ourselves white lies. That way, we bring light to dark times, and all come out ahead.