On Tuesday March 11, 5:30 p.m., outside the Bowery Ballroom in New York, people were already congregating outside. To these fans, it did not matter that the the doors opened at 8 p.m., or that Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals would not come out until 10:30. Tickets to the 530-capacity show sold out in less than six minutes, in a clear public response to Ben Harper’s nearly two years of silence. An intense feeling of longing permeated the cold air on the sidewalk outside the venue, where all waited to celebrate Diamonds on the Inside, released only hours earlier.
When the band finally came out, most of the audience was surprised to greet a new lead guitarist and keyboard/organist. From the first note, it was obvious that things were different. “Excuse Me Mr.” was now a reggae song, and indeed, the first songs seemed like a sort of tribute to Bob Marley. Then Harper lapsed back to more familiar territory, but the organ and extra guitar filled out his sound. New songs and old songs seemed to thread together with delightful equilibrium, the older ones sounding newer, and the newer ones sounding older. A cover of Pearl Jam’s “Touch From Your Lust,” off the new album, was reminiscent of the darker songs of Harper’s previous album, while songs like “Jah Work” had a fresh new edge.
This sense of continuity and evolution was reassuring to say the least, because at first listen, Diamonds on the Inside seems to be looking for a direction that it can’t quite seem to find. Most of the songs are excellent, but some of the production on them is a bit over the top. “When She Believes,” a tear-jerking melody when heard in its stripped-down form, is almost laughter-invoking on the album, where strings and orchestras back Harper at such subtle moments as “I have heard a thousand violins crying.” Hearing a different version of the songs helped me revisit the album, and it is beginning to make more sense. Actually, most of the tracks aren’t overproduced, and the album’s breadth of genre is astonishing. It is perhaps this breadth that makes the album seem directionless at first. A typical reggae song like “With My Own Two Hands” makes it hard to find Harper’s true voice, and the same goes for “Bring the Funk.” And since this sticks out from his usual practices, it detracts from other songs on the album.
But these other songs are the ones that deserve more attention. The aforementioned “Touch From Your Lust” is essentially flawless. “Amen Omen” is another song with few flaws (one being its meaningless and utterly NOT clever title). Starting with just an acoustic guitar and piano, Harper laments in a way that brings us back to his first two albums. The chorus then comes in with a somewhat contrived, uplifting, bittersweet feel, but it doesn’t last long. After a pleasant piano solo, the passion in Harper’s voice only increases. He ends the song by repeating the chorus, complete with backup singers, and manages to send a tingle up my spine despite his complete lack of subtlety.
The next two tracks show us that Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals can rock out like anyone else. “Temporary Remedy” is something like a Hendrix song, only the guitar part is actually a slide guitar. The song ends with a divine 30-second guitar solo. Then we hear the beginning of the next song: really spaced-out acoustic finger picking with some synthesized winds. After a few phrases, this sound is interrupted by a howling banshee scream while Harper uses an assault of guitars to show the woman in question that “Being with you makes me tired as hell” because it is “So High, So Low,” the name of the song. And while “Remedy” can be criticized as one of the songs that makes it hard to find Ben Harper in the music, “So High, So Low” has a quality that is uniquely his own.
But by far the song that holds Harper’s evolving style together is “When it’s Good,” the only song that uses lap steel guitar predominantly. This song seems to embody what the album tries to do by fusing styles. Here, delta blues, funk, gospel and Harper’s own style all blend together for remarkable results. Clapping serves as percussion and female soul singers repeat choruses while the guitar slides into positions creating a pulsating rhythm.
In the end, songs like “When It’s Good” and “Touch from Your Lust” serve as lifejackets for those few songs that could easily be on anyone else’s album. Every song is good — but really, I expect that from Harper. This album flies miles above the standard of modern pop, but I am using a much more stringent one. Since there are 14 songs on the album, it is just a shame that two or three of them couldn’t be removed to make a groundbreaking album. In the meantime, it does make the album more commercially accessible, and we can always skip forward.