Great artists will spend their lives worrying away at the same themes, the same ideas, refining them, stripping them down, trying to get to the essence of things. Ben Harper has spent most of his life playing the guitar — electric and acoustic — among other instruments, as well as singing, in idioms that are best described as “rootsy”: blues, country, folk, Americana. On Winter Is For Lovers, his 15th album, Harper strips his music down to its bones: he doesn’t sing, there is no Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica (as there was on his 2018 outing No Mercy in This Land), there is nothing except Harper’s guitar. This is Harper’s essence.
And it’s not just any old guitar: it’s a lap steel guitar made by luthier John Monteleone, the first of its kind he has made. With its strings raised above the fretboard, it has a rich ringing resonance that brings to mind a thousand guitarists from across the ages — Robert Johnson, John Fahey, Taj Mahal, Jeff Beck. You hear a chord, but you also hear the individual strings that create it. This is an album of guitar music that’s all about the guitar.
Each of the 15 tracks is named after a place: “Istanbul”, “Toronto”, “London”. It’s not exactly a travelogue: Harper doesn’t resort to musical clichés as signifiers, though there are local flavours to be found: “Bizanet”, for instance, named after a town in the south of France, seems to evoke that region’s cultural and geographic blurring between southern France and northern Spain. “London”, the standout track, calls to mind great British guitarists such as Jimmy Page, which leads to thoughts of Bert Jansch, which leads to thoughts of Martin Simpson and Richard Thompson . . .
The melodies are memorable, the flavours warm. It’s calming and rich and rather beautiful.
‘Winter Is for Lovers’ is released on Anti-Records
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