Both Sides of the Gun – Ben Harper
Virgin 57446On Both Sides of the Gun Ben Harper jumps into the world of double albums. Amazingly, it’s a compact venture with two discs both clocking in at little more than a half hour each. With that sense of economy, it’s not much of a surprise that there is no filler among the album’s 18 songs. A bit of creative indulgence and expansion, sure. But that’s to be expected for an artist who’s putting out his seventh studio effort and just came off from recording and performing with the Blind Boys of Alabama. The effect of time, artistic desires and being inspired by the musicianship of others makes perfect sense.
Then, why can’t I just play nice, like Harper wants, and accept this as a (mostly) acoustic set of tunes — disc one — and an electric set — disc two? It’s simply that Both Sides works as an engrossing burst of creativity and its individual sides can be viewed as complete projects yet the separation of acoustic and electric causes a lack of dramatic arc to occur. That’s especially true on the latter part of the first disc.
Harper’s music has had elements of folk, funk, soul, gospel, rock and hip-hop, but one thing that always stood out for me was a voice that displayed the tenderness and thunder of Otis Redding and the sense of hopefulness of Cat Stevens. That “resemblance” immediately comes to mind on the opening track, “Morning Yearning.” While Harper is grounded in the reality and uncertainty of everyday life, he’s still looking for a ride on the Peace Train, and hopes he finds its seats filled by many other passengers. Much of the rest of it deals with the frustration and joy at family, the bonds and bounds of love and the restrictions that faith can’t make do away with might right away. Just as it begins, disc one ends on a beautiful note with the nighttime lullaby of “Happy Everafter In Your Eyes.”
On the electric disc, Harper brings in Indian elements to add texture to the hypnotic ode of self-fulfillment, “Better Way,” but right after this he relies on the funk soul familiar to fans on the title track. On it he coalesces the thought process that runs throughout much of the album’s lyrics: we’re victims of power that’s devoid of spirituality, intelligence and compassion. It’s his fight to remain with his head above being overwhelmed by this that gives Both Sides of the Gun its overall strength. Later, he invites the spirit of great late 60s political soul by Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield on “Black Rain,” as he vents his anger at the drowning of New Orleans. The rage of that number turns to somber sadness on “Gather Round the Stone,” as Harper artfully discusses the current state of Americans being sent to a foreign land to die for a slippery slope of reasons by those in charge.
Like a circle, he returns to his spiritual side on the final three numbers, striving to break free of the negativity that’s enveloping the early part of the 21st century. It culminates in “Serve Your Soul,” one of his patented torrid rock numbers that you should be so lucky to hear in concert during his current tour. Peppered through a setlist, a number of the tracks from Both Sides of the Gun, should make for additional high points. It’s just that grouped together as they are now, they make a good case for having access to your computer and allowing the listener to become the one in charge of the final mesh of tunes.