Since debuting with Welcome to the Cruel World in 1994, Ben Harper has shown himself to be a master of many musical styles: he can flex like Hendrix on a six-string, play slide guitar like Ben Keith, shred his vocals like Otis Redding, and skank a groove like Marley and the Wailers. His songs, touching on folk, soul, roots-rock and more, are as varied as his gifts and he’s proven he can hang with legends like the Blind Boys of Alabama on 2004’s There Will Be a Light, dip into the blues with Charlie Musselwhite, and rock out with the band Fistful of Mercy, featuring George Harrison’s son Dhani.
But on his 13th studio LP, he’s going back to his roots, reuniting with his original band, the Innocent Criminals, for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s a welcome homecoming. Recorded in separate sessions spanning the course of a year, the 11-song set is his most diverse collection in years. Garage rock (“When Sex Was Dirty”) flows between zero-gravity blues (“All That Has Grown”); ‘60s-style Latin-folk (“How Dark Is Gone”) crashes headfirst into sweet Caribbean soul (“Finding Our Way”).
At 46-years-old, Harper also embraces his mature worldview on the album, the most overt political statement of his career. He ruminates on police brutality and the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Ezell Ford on the title track and he does so from the hardened vantage of a man who has, tragically, seen such things before. “Call it what it is,” he begs in the song’s chorus: “Murder.” On “How Dark Is Gone,” he lays down a sprawling lament for a childhood friend who died in prison. The past 18 months have seen groundbreaking releases like D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, Gary Clark Jr.’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, and Beyonce’s “Formation.” Each has succeeded, uniquely, in offering new nuance to the understanding of what it means to be black in America today. Harper’s latest is a much-needed addition to the conversation.