Split Personality: Ben Harper juggles ballads and funk on two-disc set
Ben Harper spends a lot of his time recording with well-known friends like Jack Johnson, Beth Orton and Gov’t Mule. And his last studio recording—2004’s There Will Be a Light—found him collaborating with The Blind Boys of Alabama. In fact, the two-disc Both Sides of the Gun is the first studio album filed solely under his name since 2003’s Diamonds on the Inside.
At just over an hour, these 18 tracks would fit easily on one disc, but Harper divides them by mood into Side A and Side B, as if this were a dusty LP. The decision to split up the tracks according to their mood could easily reflect the album’s title. Side A’s rollicking, funky bravado captures the power and control of someone with a loaded weapon, while Side B’s mellow, tender balladry represents the mournful resignation of someone confronting the very real possibility of death.
The album’s title track (on Side A) seems to confirm this theory: amid syncopated Hammond chords and guitar emerges Harper’s impassioned shout, “When you’re trapped, you got no voice!” Later, Harper maintains his high energy without such overwhelming traces of desperation. “Get It Like You Like It” carries the carefree, sing-along jubilation of the Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It),” while “The Way You Found Me” is a bluesy love song with a sassy chorus (“Take me as I am / Or leave me the way you found me”).
Both Sides‘ second disc pursues themes of love from a more amorous standpoint. Harper sets the mood with lush string arrangements: a quartet amplifies the sensuality of “Morning Yearning,” while a single resonant cello grounds the tender “Waiting For You.” Harper’s seduction plot climaxes with the album-closing “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes,” with his overtly emotional voice delivering lyrics that sound like wedding vows (“All that I can give you / Is forever yours to keep”).
While sweet love songs unify Side B, Side A contains the album’s more dramatically pointed tracks. Harper rants about the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina in “Black Rain” (“You don’t fight for us / But expect us to die for you”), with strings adding dramatic accents.
The record’s most intense number is the anti-war “Gather ‘Round the Stone”—its diminished volume sounding out-of-place on the rowdier Side A, but its angry message fitting right in. Harper’s acoustic guitar combined with uplifting backing vocals on the chorus amplifies the protest in the verses (“There’s no freedom to be found / Lying face up in the ground”), making the song sound like an ancient spiritual. Perhaps the album’s sides are the opposite of what they initially seem: even when gripping a weapon in his hand, Harper chooses to sing quiet, pacifistic songs of love, while he finds the courage truly to speak his mind only when staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.