There are albums that mark an artist's career. They stand as mileposts that signal a musician has entered a new phase or reached a higher plateau. "White Lies for Dark Times," out May 5, is that album for Ben Harper.
Throughout his career, Harper has produced music with significance and weight, which is appropriate given that he studied at the feet of blues master Taj Mahal. Here, he deconstructs what he has previously created over his 15 years as a recording artist and starts anew, but brings with him the experience and wisdom of his past.
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For "Lies," Harper is recording with a new outfit dubbed Relentless7. His usual band, the Innocent Criminals, are on hiatus and he's recruited Jason Mozerksy for guitar, Jesse Ingalls on bass and Jordan Richardson on drums.
Harper wrote or co-wrote the CD's 11 songs. Opening track, "Number With No Name," brings in elements of Stevie Ray Vaughan's swampiness and Bob Dylan's rock blues. "Up to You Now" is urgent in its protagonist's supplication as Harper sings, "I will stumble to your alter with my knees bent/my head bowed/and it's up to you now." Religious imagery pervades the song, one of the album's best, as he continues, "You wrote a list with all your demands/and you nailed it to both of my hands." He could be singing about a lover, he could be singing about some other authority figure or an addiction; but whatever it is, the master has a very clear hold on its servant.
"Why Must You Always Dress in Black," is a smoky barnburner that conjures up the ghost of Jimi Hendrix , Harper's most frequent spiritual traveling companion on "Lies," and features ferocious drum work by Richardson.
Even the slower numbers, such as "Skin Thin" (one of the album's weakest tracks, lyrically) and "Fly One Time" capture the feeling that everything may change in an instant despite our futile, desperate attempts to hang on, especially, as Harper sings on the latter, "Now I'm caught in between what I can't leave behind and what I may never find."
Harper has opened his veins and lets us all see the blood flow. On "Lay There and Hate Me," (the title really tells you everything you need to know), he fights with a lover who has sent a scorched-earth letter, "written in your favorite colors/blood and black." In the end, however, the enemy combatant is himself, not the woman, as he sings "I've learned some things about myself I wish I didn't know."
If you want to just listen to the album musically, knock yourself out. It works on that level better than most. But do yourself a favor, tune out the rest of the world and spend some time with "White Lies for Dark Times" and really listen to what Harper is saying here. We all earn our battle scars, it's how we go forward after the war that defines how we live our lives.