The Varieties of the Rock Experience: Ben Harper’s Give Till It’s Gone

By Daniel Garrett

Ben Harper, Give Till It’s Gone
Recorded and mixed by Danny Kalb
String arrangements by Jessy Green
Ben Harper/Virgin, 2011

“Time, it opens all wounds,” in a song about knowing self and needing to change, “Don’t Give Up On Me Now,” is a piercing thought; and though the lyrics seem more familiar than fresh, the song, with a heavy beat, in which the husky-voiced Ben Harper uses his tonal range—rising to a high, light tone—achieves a sensitive sound, a convincing tenderness, drawing the listener closer, magnifying attention. The listener is reminded that we can feel responsible for the world, but the transformative work, whether creative, intellectual, or spiritual, begins within our individual lives; a lesson neither new or negligible, though quite often neglected. Opening with a fast and intense rhythm, an electronic pattern, “I Will Not Be Broken” develops the theme of social concern from a somewhat different perspective, that of the committed public servant: “You give and you give till it’s gone,” then the people you fight hardest for say that you’re wrong. (Keyboardist and baritone guitarist Kyle Crusham contributes to the song.) The dense song, full of dramatic declamation, with its theme of a misunderstood man and a misperceived sacrifice, is perfect for our time—a time when commerce and cruelty are more coherent to people than compassion—and it could have been written for Barack Obama. Its assertions of strength sound anguished.

The bearded, brown-skinned, tattooed Ben Harper has been the natural man as rocker and activist, friend and lover; and on the album Give Till It’s Gone, he explores different attitudes and sounds, spanning generations and genres, producing what could be seen as a concise dictionary of rock. Harper, a singer-songwriter and slide guitarist, has been working with bassist Jesse Ingalls, guitarist Jason Mozersky, and drummer Jordan Richardson; and, on Give Till It’s Gone, Harper’s anthem “Rock N’ Roll Is Free” is affirmative, and its attitudes and aural tones beautifully arranged, although acknowledging the connection between free spirit and music that is more likely to be stolen rather than bought (“free”) might produce ambivalence in many musicians. “May not know where I am, but I’m glad I’m here,” he claims. There is an aspect of a country-rock sound beneath Harper’s high voice in the downbeat ballad “Feel Love,” with the stated caution or correction that “what has been lived can’t be changed,” whereas “Clearly Severely,” with humane lyrics, has the rowdiest punk pounding and push—the beating on the drums punctuated by short but repeated guitar wails—I have heard from Ben Harper. Harper’s voice sounds double-tracked in “Spilling Faith,” a vintage sound, and the thickly textured song has a groove threaded with a brief piano pattern. I thought of the Beatles and also of Cracker; and, in fact, drummer Ringo Starr plays on the song. Harper has been more a preserver of tradition than an originator. The intense instrumental “Get There from Here,” with a current of funk beneath its rock, is gritty, maybe even grimy.

I like Ben Harper’s Give Till It’s Gone, an album through which he seems to be making a case for established pleasure, pride, and promise, for rock as rage and reflection and resource, but I have not fallen in love with the collection. The time may have passed for that. Much of the public manner has become more casual, freer, looser in recent decades, and the public mind as well; consequently, the conformities are deeper, more profound, and no one genre—not rock, not hip-hop—can stand against it, and often, what seems “cool” or “popular” is likely to be the first target, if not the most obvious sign, of colonization, of conformity. Ideas and their expression and execution are more important, depth is more important, and passion and personal taste are more important. It is not difficult to conclude that the best things on Give Till It’s Gone may be the most fragile. I do like the strings in “Pray that Our Love Sees the Dawn,” with Jessy Greene on violin, and Jackson Browne’s voice. It is a song of controlled emotion, of controlled pressure; and its atmospherics call to mind the alternative rock of two decades past, when the rebellious and the sensitive, the raw and the composed, were brought together. There is a rooted, slow-funk groove in “Waiting on a Sign,” which quotes the line “a mother’s only happy as her saddest child.” Strong and sultry, it is one of those Harper songs in which the Rolling Stones influence cannot be denied. (It is possible to draw comparisons between Harper and other musicians past and present, including Dobie Gray and Bill Withers, Lenny Kravitz and Darius Rucker; and it was Kravitz who recently remarked on critical fortune, noting that early in his career aging critics scored Kravitz harshly for the influences for which, several years later, younger critics would commend emerging younger artists.) The femme fatale, the lasting female image in rock and detective novels and film noir, of woman as desired object and willful destroyer, is trotted out again in “Dirty Little Lover,” announced with hard rock guitars; and “Do It For You, Do It For Us,” lovingly furious or furiously loving, is a screaming rock-out. Rock is dead; long live rock.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth, and has begun focusing on his internet log devoted to visual arts, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.”