“What If We End Where We Begin” A Review of Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite’s No Mercy In This Land
Updated: Sep 25, 2019
Written by Tim Lemon
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“Can’t find what you’re looking for, even when it’s looking for you”
The balance between staying relevant in an ever-evolving landscape of tastes and trends and holding true to one’s values and sense of self is elusive at best. It takes flexibility and experimentation to bend to the will of consumers while not stifling creativity or breaking one’s own spirit. Ben Harper has made a career out of walking that tightrope, as evidenced by the radio ad that has been playing for the last month on WCLZ to promote his show at Thompson’s Point in Portland on 8/30. Featuring radio hits like “Diamonds on the Inside” and “Steal My Kisses”, the ad showcases Harper’s catchy mainstream staples in broadcasting to a larger audience in listener-friendly fashion. But dig just beneath the surface and you will find the breadth of Harper’s influences - acoustic roots in “Burn One Down”, reggae in “With My Own Two Hands”, post-grunge rock in “Please Bleed”, and slide guitar-centric blues rock on “Whipping Boy.” Although a select few songs seem to please the masses, he doesn’t seek to cater to them. Blending those influences into songs that are easy to digest and sing along to, they act as a hook and bring unsuspecting listeners into a heavy and diverse discography that you would not necessarily expect given the radio singles. 2018’s No Mercy In This Land finds Harper return more purely to those influences alongside legendary blues harp player Charlie Musselwhite five years after the release of their Grammy Award-winning collaboration Get Up! Regardless of whether Harper was in search of the blues or they were in search of him, they found each other again and, in the presence of Musselwhite and his harmonica, the pairing could not be any better.
Lead track, “When I Go”, immediately sets the tone and setting for the record with a bassy, spiritual vocal chant that seems to travel across muddy swamp water and vibrate through the trees as if hummed directly from the heart of a bayou. Driven by a crunchy, hammer-on heavy guitar riff, the track moves forward with precisely plodding bass notes while Musselwhite’s smoky harp floats over top weaving in and out of the melodic pocket. “Bottle Wins Again” finds Harper and Musselwhite indulge in the blues tradition of instrumental stops during vocals, adding depth to the self-deprecating defeat described in the lyrics. The pattern of the stops and overall progression was vaguely reminiscent of George Thoroughgood’s “Bad to the Bone”, but was nowhere near superficial. Never seeming like a gimmicky attempt at the blues, the track and album as a whole pay homage to their roots rather than serve up a trite representation in an attempt to replicate past commercial and award show success. Incorporating both musicians’ strengths, the electric guitar and harp traded solos before ceding to a slide guitar solo that brought the track to a close. Exploring different iterations of the blues throughout the record, Harper and Musselwhite occasionally break from that tradition with infusions of their own stylings that serve to deepen the respect for the genre rather than dishonor it. My favorite of these moments comes on “Love and Trust” where Harper is featured on a hollow-body electric guitar played lap steel-style and Musselwhite matches his melody on the harp. Taking a sweeping criticism of society at large, the stomp percussion and gospel backing vocals in the chorus simulate the delivery of the message to the general public that coincidentally joins the criticism as if becoming self-aware. The descending progression in the verse holds the rhythm down while Harper modulates notes with his phrasing, but it was the minor chord in the second line of the chorus that won me over. There’s a dark optimism to the dichotomy between Harper’s smooth vocals and the tone of that chord. As the lyrics at the end of the song suggest, “Do all you can, just hope it’s enough | Everybody’s crying about some love and trust.” For in directing attention to the world’s flaws and doing your part, there is hope that things will get better.
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Although the record features some breaks from traditional blues, there is no doubt that even those tracks are rooted in the genre - if not in song structure, then most definitely in vocal phrasing and lyrical content. Singing with audible heartbreak, the soulful piano-driven “When Love Is Not Enough” finds Harper channel some Prince energy a-la “Nothing Compares 2U” with the lyrics: “Choosing not to remember is no way to forget.” Featuring a fret-sliding guitar solo over clanging piano chords that add gravity to deepen the divide between the song’s protagonist and his lover, it is the only song on which the harmonica is absent. Acting as a bridge between artistic infusion and genre purity, the record features numerous takes on the 12-bar blues structure at different tempos. The uptempo, rockabilly blues number “Bad Habits” puts Musselwhite’s riffing talents on the harmonica to use throughout while the solo spotlight was shone upon the electric guitar with a jangly tone that seemed to emulate Keith Richards. “Movin’ On” is a similarly uptempo, if not more upbeat, blues rocker that features the most extensive percussion arrangement on the album. That isn’t to say that it’s a complex arrangement, just the most full-sounding compared to the sparser arrangements on other tracks. Perhaps it was the lack of that percussive force on “Found the One” that caused it not to resonate with me. Or maybe it was that the steadily strummed electric rhythm guitar seemed a little stagnant and the harp was more accordion-like than harmonica-like on that one. Regardless, even if I consider “Found the One” to be the album’s low-point, it is by no means a bad song. However, I think the sentiment behind the lyrics rings out a bit more relatably on the stripped back and finger-picked “Trust You to Dig My Grave” that lets Harper and Musselwhite jam without a percussive accompaniment.
Whereas “When Love Is Not Enough” frames the darkness that lies at the heart of the blues in the context of heartache and “Love and Trust” raises it as a call to come together, the album’s title track leans most heavily into the abyss both in terms of instrumentation and subject matter. While the lyrics discuss religion, war, the craziness of modern times, and abandonment and loss throughout family history that leave you crying for a reprieve from all the suffering the world can throw at you, the minor acoustic melody is backed by a ghostly voodoo beat. Harper and Musselwhite trade verses to lament their troubles, but it is Harper’s slide guitar that graces the track with a solo while Musselwhite takes on the melody with the harp. If “No Mercy In This Land” merely raises the issues at hand, closer “Nothing At All” questions the meaning behind such struggles. Featuring a dark piano similar to “When Love Is Not Enough”, the chord progression reminded me of the chorus to the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with its descending bass note. Harper again utilizes an airy, heady vocal quality to layer on his heartbreak as if using wispy strokes on canvas to paint a picture with his words. Musselwhite fittingly gets the solo on this one, coincidentally being the last solo of the record, before the last verse in which Harper sings, “What if we end where we begin, everywhere we go we have already been | Would you relive the pain or would you call it a draw...all or nothing at all.” Those words linger in the air on their own, but are given an especially eery quality when considering the album’s first track “When I Go” describes a doomed attempt at escaping a past life in which the protagonist is unable to leave those struggles and troubles behind. Coming full circle, the album most certainly ends where it begins. Being the most recent offering in Ben Harper’s discography, it would seem that his musical journey up to this point has done the same.
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