Ben Harper is known for songs that are either personal or political, and in Lifeline, his latest release with the Innocent Criminals, the songs embody both. In each of the album’s 11 tracks, Harper plays with themes of humanity, our individual and collective experiences, using a mixture of soul, R&B, gospel, rock, and the blues. “Fight Outta You,” the lead track, is full of imperatives to hold on to what each of has—pride, self-respect, and the will to survive.
The mood and tone of the album will appeal to fans of Blue Note recording artists Norah Jones and Amos Lee. Like them, Harper embraces a singer-songwriter’s dedication to powerful, poetic lyrics and a blues musician’s exploration of musical variation in mood and tone. While Harper’s work holds its own among his contemporaries, the music on Lifeline , all written by Harper and his quintet, conjures the soul, funk, and blues-inspired artists of the ’60s—particularly those who recorded for Memphis-based Stax Records, such as Otis Redding, Mavis Staples, Sam & Dave, and Booker T. and the MGs.
Sam & Dave surely would have rocked to the quick, charged guitar riff on “Put It On Me,” Lifeline’s eighth track. The guitar and accompanying piano, by Michael Ward and Jason Yates, and backup vocals evoke the sound of a musical era that can’t be separated from its politics. In “Heart of Matters,” backup vocals, organ, piano, and rhythm sections embolden Harper’s personal, soulful plea. The sound will appeal to Redding fans, but the lyrical phrasing is unmistakably Harper: “You can’t just say I love you / You have to live I love you … I wish I could find a way / To sing the life back into you and I.”
In “Fight Outta You,” he transforms what could have been an angry diatribe into a motivating mantra: “They’ll look you in the eyes and stone you / Then turn and disown you / They’ll walk all over your name / ’Til they find someone else to blame … Don’t let them take the fight outta you.”
Harper’s vision and voice will absorb listeners’ attention, but they shouldn’t overlook the energy and vigor of the tightly performed compositions of the Innocent Criminals. Oliver Charles, Leon Mobley, Juan Nelson, Michael Ward, and Jason Yates have a distinctive, powerful sound—evidenced in “Say You Will,” where their well-woven instrumental presence is equal to Harper’s sharp, timely delivery. It’s a sound honed by nine months of touring together; immediately after the tour, the group spent one week in Paris recording the album—and with no computers or sound-enhancing tools, which adds to the authenticity Harper is aiming for with this effort.
Harper’s use of “you” and “I” throughout the album establishes the songs as a dialogue. In the final, and title, track, he sings softly, almost whispering, “Life is much too short / To sit and wonder … I don’t want to wait a lifetime / Yours or mine / Can’t you see me reaching / For the lifeline.” Harper reminds us that we live in an era in which each of us has a voice, a vote, and a choice that can impact personal, community, and political landscapes.
Beth Newberry, a former Sojourners editorial intern, recently completed her master’s of fine arts in writing from Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky, where she lives.