Ben Harper is a musician’s musician with his eyes on the prize. Equally important, he’s dipped his fingers in that many musical pots, collaborated with than many different musicians, and created such a pastiche style that even broad categorizations are rendered elusive.
On Give Till It’s Gone, Harper’s tenth studio album and his most recent solo release since 2006, he calls on these diverse influences to produce a disc that, if not stylistically consistent, at least makes sense as a unified whole.
Ultimately, what holds Give Till It’s Gone together is not the self-assuredness of Harper’s musicianship as he moves from a fragile acoustic number like “Feel Love” to the greasy funk vibes of “Dirty Little Lover” — it’s the vulnerability of the lyrics, the everyman voice that practically pleas for acceptance at the most intimate level.
At the centre of the record are two carpe diem tracks where Harper breaks the cardinal rule of writing by telling rather than showing: “Don’t miss out on your life / Like a pair of shoes hanging from a wire” he cautions in “Clearly Severely,” before urging, “Don’t let one day go to waste” in “Spilling Faith.” Still, he makes up for this minor faux pas when the latter tune segues into the six-minute instrumental “Get There From Here,” reminiscent of a jazz club on fire. Harper’s got Ringo Starr laying down the beat, and the result is electric, man.
These songs are more toned down than those on his last album, 2009’s White Lies For Dark Times, logically structured to have enough pop nuggets buried beneath a rocky core to give it commercial leverage without selling out. This approach works wonders on the opening track, “Don’t Give Up On Me Now,” and even the leading single “Rock N’ Roll Is Free” possesses a great contemporary summer rock backbone, despite lyrics that are borderline trite.
Granted, the album isn’t perfect, but its shortcomings aren’t so much in what’s present, but rather what isn’t there. “I Will Not Be Broken” tries so hard to elevate itself to an emotional climax that, when it falters at the end, the missed opportunity is so blatant. Likewise, “Waiting On A Sign” is good, gritty blues, but the guitar work is lackluster at best, complacent at worst, especially since we know Harper has it in him to give this tune a bite that still stings after you turn it off.
Still, Ben Harper is committed to giving what he’s got in his musical arsenal and making it accessible. As he proclaims in the song of the same name, “Rock n’ roll is free, so come and get it”—Give Till It’s Gone may not be a defining work of the year or the artist, but it does reaffirm a belief that real music is still being made in 2011. So, come and get it.