Cover Story [Issue
Shooting for a Better Way
Both Sides Of The Gun
CD Virgin )
Ever since emerging
onto the musical landscape with his debut release, Welcome to the Cruel World,
singer-songwriter Ben Harper has channeled a wide array of musical styles to deliver
heartfelt messages of protest, love, and empathy for the human condition and its
What could be his
most ambitious, sprawling effort to date, Both Sides of the Gun, finds the inventive
multi-instrumentalist experimenting more than ever with diversity, largely because
the 18-track opus allowed the musician a wider canvas on which to paint his lyrical
portraits over a wash of sonic texture.
For most artists, creating a double album only two years after his last studio
release would be a colossal achievement. However, Harpers prolific artistry
compels him to edit his work tirelessly. Speaking about the process of recording
Both Sides of the Gun, the Pomona native admits, I had no idea that I was
going to make a double album. It wasnt even on the map for me. I did have
leftover stuff on this record, as well. So, the 18 songs is the abbreviated from
the complete session. I finished another six or seven tunes. I know a couple of
them were going to use as iTunes downloads, B-sides, things to send off
with radio singles, EPs, and stuff like that.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Harper also finds it surprising that people
often comment about the eclectic mixture of material that comprises his albums.
The masterful musician reveals, In truth, I am a classical musician trapped
in a slide guitar player. Commenting on how he expands his range of material
while still maintaining a focused effort, Harper surmises, I think that
just has to do with the individuals voice or the group and style of songwriting
and where it falls within the sequence of a record, as well as a willingness for
fans to listen to different types of music. Theres a lot that goes into
that. Most groups, when it comes to music, whether its The Beatles, The
Stones, or U2, its all variations on one song. So, theres going to
be an interconnectedness no matter what. In speaking about the common thread
running though rather stylistically dissimilar tracks on his latest LP, he concludes,
So, More Than Sorry is a variation of Get It Like You
Like It in its own right. Obviously, theyre different songs.
Harper also notes that his penchant for crafting divergent material within the
confines of one release was not always considered unusual. He reminisces, Back
in the day, nobody would point at me for being any different than anyone else
as far as diversity goes cause it was quite standard [to make contrastive
albums]. You could have a Wind Cries Mary and a Purple Haze
and nobody really got that angry. Like The White Album, God knows The Beatles
mixed it up and that was their stock in trade, different musical diversity. [From
Abbey Road], Here Comes the Sun and [sings] I Want You (Shes
Surprisingly, the composer is generally able to foresee many elements in the direction
a song will lead him in terms of production and style. He offers, I have
a pretty good idea when Im going in about how it should sound. I can hear
a song in a finished form, not the finished form, kicking around in my head. So,
that usually gets me. The way I hear the song gets me halfway there and what gets
me home the rest of the way is the life it takes on while youre trying to
get to what youre hearing in your head. Its usually 50 percent, I
can hear it, feel it, taste it and the other half is just improvisation.
While many double albums can become too rambling, or Harper believes that certain
recurring themes and album sequencing have much to do with the way the record
will ultimately flow. As far as uniting the disparate elements of a far-reaching
project, Harper reveals that certain songs will reflect other tracks in the collection.
Using the sparse, introspective songs, More Than Sorry and Crying
Wont Help You Now as examples, he explains, I dont think
they were written close together, but songs go good like the left and the right
hand. Not necessarily in pairs, but in matches. Like More Than Sorry
and Crying Wont Help You Now, Happy Everafter In Your
Eyes and Morning Yearning go together. Black Rain
and Both Sides of the Gun go together. Sometimes they go in threes
because Better Way is probably also lumped in with that. Get
It Like You Like It and Engraved Invitation, theres certain
matchings that go together, reasons why they cant go back to back, and so
on. Thats one way you can balance it out and find a good sequence of a record,
knowing that songs have a likeness toward one another.
Those who have experienced Ben Harper and The Innocent Criminals live performances
they will recall moments of extended improvisation akin to the groups shows.
The concluding track of disc one, Serve Your Soul, has the feel of
Led Zeppelins more ethereal, grinding work. The extended framework gives
the maverick performer a chance to coax bluesy passion out of his slide guitar.
Of the compositions epic length, Harper admits, I knew I had a few
different movements for it, sort of like a classical piece, but in a rock style.
I didnt quite know each one was going to be that long. Thats one of
the songs I didnt hear it becoming how it did. The players and I just stretched
everything out and by the time we hit the last note, we just looked at each other
and said, Well, lets go check that out. And it ended up being
that long. Of course, in the digital age, I couldve edited the heck out
of it, but I just let it be what it was in its natural state.
Not only is the album sonically widespread, but it also ranges in the scope of
message. One of the more sentimental songs on Both Sides of the Gun is the poignant
Never Leave Lonely Alone. Of the haunting ballads genesis, Harper
remembers, I was just kicking [the feeling of] loneliness around and was
talking with someone about when you walk into a movie theater and see someone
by themselves. Or, if youre by yourself, you sit alone. One time, a friend
of mine walked into a movie theater and there was only one other person in there
and they sat completely away from them. I was just talking about that. One of
the saddest things in the world is to walk into a restaurant late at night and
seeing people alone. Being on the road, you eat late after gigs. You pull into
these truck stops or diners and you see a man or a woman sitting at the counter
by themselves and its heartbreaking to see someone very, very old sitting
all by themselves. Theres something desperate about it and I just tried
to put that to music.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the singers bitter response to the
governments inability to provide immediate relief for Hurricane Katrina
victims. With an aggressive string arrangement and a driving clavinet riff, the
track could sit alongside the material on Stevie Wonders Talking Book. With
bitter barbs aimed at the administration and sympathy for the victims, the artists
rant pulls no punches in its harsh critique. Not one to reinterpret his original
message of scathing dissent, Harper unapologetically quips, The song is
a statement. Everything I can say about the statement is not as direct as I said
in the statement itself in the song. Thats what I want to get out and say,
as direct a way as possible.
While the CD is rife with angst, Harper notes that he does not want the tone of
the work to be one of animosity. The opening track, Better Way, temarks
some hope in the face of adversity. He offers, It was important to me that
there was optimism with an album title like Both Sides of the Gun. I wanted that
to be more than just a literal connotation. Over a blanket of Eastern instrumentation,
elegiac strings, and percolating percussion, Harpers chorus refrain repeatedly
incants, I believe in a better way.
For existing fans of Ben Harper, Both Sides of the Gun will be a welcome delight
in their growing arsenal of material. With all his trademark grit and wit, the
artist has outdone himself as both musician and messenger. The double album also
serves as an excellent introduction to Harpers music because it spans dynamic
range and has something for everyone. Ultimately, Ben Harper proves once again
that he continues to push his personal boundaries of inspired creativity.
Both Sides Of The Gun