In the far-off days of my youth in rural North Wales, the release of a new record by one’s favourite band was a major event, filled with anticipation and the weekend, when you could take the hour-long bus ride to the nearest big town with a record shop, seemed to take forever to come. For better or worse, the coming of the internet changed all that and a plethora of shiny new online marketing techniques brought with it a corresponding loss of that tingling sense of expectancy which was once such a key part of this music fan’s life.
Having said that, there are musicians who can still inspire that same sense of anticipation of old while making the most of the new promotional methods. Interestingly, they are often musicians whose songs soundtracked my teenage years in the 1970s, who’ve embraced technology and incorporated it into their ways of working. And I can’t think of a better example than Roy Harper, whose new album, Man & Myth – his first new studio recording in thirteen years – will be out very soon.
But don’t be fooled: he is not some bohemian relic from the 1960s about whom people say nice things simply because he’s survived half a century as a professional musician. His steadfast refusal to compromise his proven skills as a writer and musician for the ephemera of commercial success has often left him exiled on the margins, a singular visionary whose time never seemed to come, but he’s always been a fighter with an unswerving belief in himself – and, equally importantly, his muse. If he isn’t inspired to make music, he doesn’t – but with Man & Myth, his muse is front and centre, everything is coming together at last and just maybe, his hour has finally, deservedly, come – and it’s been well worth the wait.
He set out his stall for Man & Myth in a recent interview with Jeremy Gaunt for Reuters, where he acknowledged the maturity which comes with age but maintains there is a lifelong consistency in his artistic vision “based on what I think of as my own primitive criteria. I am pretty much the same person as I was at six. I have just added to that”, while revealing in an interview with Martin Aston in Mojo magazine (October 2013), that “The shorter songs are the man, and the long song is the myth”.
Opening track The Enemy (Within) provides an insistent rhythm over which Harper declaims his contempt for, in his own words: “the natural growth of a society according to the alpha male and the formalisation of pecking order: civilisation”. Musically, a staccato minor key chorus and some fluid lead guitar keep things moving throughout.
The introspective Time Is Temporary, previewed on FRUK in July, finds Harper musing on the everyday occurrence of strangers making eye contact and sensing that they may somehow be kindred spirits, even though they never stop to take things any further. Some broody strings, banjo and Harper’s intricate fingerstyle acoustic guitar playing combine to create a downbeat mood which matches the introverted lyric.
January Man is my favourite song on Man & Myth: a sparse, elegiac contemplation on the passing of the years and coming to terms with the realisation that you can’t turn back the clock, even if you want to. Harper’s delicately strong voice is beautifully counterpointed by billowing clouds of strings and it both breaks my heart and lifts my spirits.
A quietly simmering anger fuels The Stranger, a contemporary folk song infused with a sensibility that draws on non-Western traditional music without appropriating its sources. Lyrically, its two distinct parts make for a far from easy listen. It begins with Harper looking at his reflection in the mirror and struggling to reconcile the man he sees with his inner self, before turning his gaze on a broken relationship with all the negative feelings of pain and betrayal that come with it.
Having lit the blue touchpaper of his emotions, Harper proceeds to put a rocket under the ample backside of contemporary society with the fiery indictment of modern life that is Cloud Cuckooland. Swiping mercilessly at everyone and everything within range, from couch potatoes who “gather at prime time / On the flat screens of their dreams / To vote for dumb celebrity”, to social media addicts who “witter into gathering storms of universal screams” and bankers who “creep around their spreadsheets with the darkest sleight of hand”, nobody escapes his withering stare. Featuring a guest appearance by Pete Townshend (The Who) on lead guitar, this is an old-school rocker complete with power chords, wailing sax and thumping piano proving beyond doubt that Roy Harper can still rock out with the best of them.
So far, the shorter songs on Man & Myth have focused on the Harper the man, but with the last two songs, Heaven Is Here and The Exile, attention moves to the myth. Although billed as two separate tracks, they join seamlessly to create what Harper refers to as “the long song” (interview with Martin Aston in Mojo magazine, October 2013), adding cryptically that “The myth is bendable and changes every time it’s passed on”.
With a playing time in excess of 23 minutes, “the long song” is another of the sprawling yet focused musical labyrinths that have been such an integral part of his back catalogue almost since the beginning. The first part of Heaven Is Here finds Harper looking back on the elements of his life that might be called mythical. Taking as his starting point the Ancient Greek tale of Jason and the Argonauts, there are references to “gods who rode the four winds” and “the islands of death, the disappeared” before switching to the tale of Eurydice, with a final nod to Aeneas and the golden bough.
The second part sees an increase in tempo as the lyric moves into more personal areas, hinting at some of the darker times in his life, “walking with the gods, talking to the trees” before discovering “the beauty of free thought”. It’s a composition which both requires and repays attention and the arrangement is flawless, endlessly changing to suit the moods of the lyric. Particularly noteworthy are Tony Franklin’s fretless bass which adds a nicely jazzy feel to the pastoral guitar while Harper’s own multitracked vocals are startlingly effective.
The Exile is both the closing track and the last part of “the long song”: it continues Harper’s musings on growing older and feeling ever more alienated, an exile both figuratively and literally, before a short, acoustic coda rounds out the album.
This is not a record you’ll hear on permaloop as you wander around your neighbourhood megamall on a Saturday morning; it’s unlikely to be playing in your regular coffee shop or your favourite pub and there’s good reason to be thankful for that. This is a deeply personal record, as full of contradictions as Harper himself and at times it feels almost an intrusion to be listening to it. Yet – like its creator – it displays a steadfast refusal to be beaten, a relentless raging against the dying of the light and, paradoxically, a celebration of life and all these aspects make it both accessible and something to be cherished. Man & Myth is a tour de force which effortlessly displays Harper’s mastery of his craft and is without doubt the best record he has ever made.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Many & Myth is released via Bella Union on 23 Sep 2013