“Sometimes I think to talk too much about music almost cheapens it.”–Ben Harper, in conversation.
This sentiment is possibly more relevant to Ben Harper’s new Burn To Shine than to any of his three previous Virgin LPs. Written entirely by Harper, Burn To Shine is the work of extremes its title might imply: A record where a jarring paean to alienation (“Less”) is sandwiched between tender and emotive meditations on love and spirituality (“The Woman In You,” “Two Hands Of A Prayer”). Even the album’s more laid back and playful side (“Steal My Kisses,” “Burn To Shine”) is a revelation: Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals (bassist Juan Nelson, drummer Dean Butterworth and percussionist David Leach) leaning into a groove and seemingly enjoying it like never before. Similarly, the opening “Alone” and closing one-two of ‘Beloved One” and “In The Lord’s Arms” are pure soul laid bare: arguably the most vulnerable moments Harper has committed to record.
Nevertheless, it’s highly unlikely that the new record will sound the least bit alien to fans of Ben Harper’s previous works. From the hand-crafted acoustic instruments that imbued 1994’s Welcome To The Cruel World with its sonic warmth, to the introduction of the Weissenborn slide guitar into the hard rock framework of Fight For Your Mind’s punctuating The Will To Live’s “Faded” and “Glory & Consequence,” growth and experimentation have been twin staples of Harper’s repertoire. As an artist fluent in virtually every musical tongue in a world where most struggle to master one, he has made diversity his stock in trade.
The half a year spent on Burn To Shine is the longest period of time Harper and the returning team of producer J.P. Plunier and engineer/mixer Eric Sarafin have spent working on one of his records. This patience seems to have caused Harper’s trademark expansiveness to thrive: “Suzie Blue,” for instance, features a traditional ’20s jazz arrangement, brought to life by the Real Time Jazz Band, and is followed by a marriage of human beatboxing and uptempo folk on “Steal My Kisses.” Elsewhere, “Please Bleed” and “The Woman In You” make good on the acoustic/electric promise of The Will To Live and Fight For Your Mind, whereas “Forgiven” and the title track simply rock. The guest roster is rounded by David Lindley (“In The Lord’s Arms”), Tyrone Downie (“Show Me A Little Shame,” “The Woman In You”–making him the second Bob Marley sideman to appear on a Ben Harper record: Guitarist Al Anderson sat in on “Faded” and “Jah Work” on The Will To Live), and the Suzi Katayama Quartet lend their strings to “Beloved One.”
Ben Harper is aware of both the obstacles and advantages of these passionate explorations. While the sheer scope of records that shift from purist folk to Delta blues to hard rock may confound radio programmers, they also afford an artist untold opportunities. By the time Burn To Shine is released, Ben Harper will have guested on records by Beth Orton, John Lee Hooker, Warren Haynes and Government Mule, played two Tibetan Freedom Concerts alongside the likes of Beastie Boys and Radiohead, opened for Metallica, Pearl Jam, The Fugees, The Roots, Marilyn Manson, played the Montreux Jazz Festival with REM, as well as headlining major venues in France, Italy, Australia and New Zealand (all countries where Harper’s previous three LPs have achieved gold and/or platinum status, bringing his worldwide catalogue sales close to the two million mark).