Wednesday, October 12, 2011
Roy Harper - Valentine
You know you're in a good place artistically when you're pumping out massive, sweeping epics every couple of years and still find you have enough shorter, less ambitious songs coming out of your pen to collect another entire album without even having to try. Roy Harper was in such a situation in 1974, coming off of a couple of conceptual beasts in 1971's Stormcock and 1973's Lifemask and realizing he'd amassed enough unrelated but equally strong material in the meantime to release an album of (mostly) love songs--1974's Valentine.
The fact that a spread of songs dating as far back as the mid-60's succeeds so well comes undoubtedly by the grace of the unstoppable roll Harper was on in the mid-70's. Still in the continual process of honing his individualistic acoustic singer/songwriter-cum-absurdist rock experimenter style, it's clear on Valentine that there were plenty more song experiments and odd ideas yet to go before the well ran dry--indeed, with his move to a more rock centered style on 1975's HQ, Harper moved on before having to scrape the bottom of the barrel.
In Valentine we get the classic Harper blend of tenderness ("I'll See You Again," an update of his debut's "Forever,"), belligerence ("Male Chauvinist Pig Blues," "Che"), comic vulgarity ("Magic Woman Liberation Reshuffle") and spaciness ("Twelve Hours of Sunset," "Acapulco Gold"), all tied together by an ever-present sense of human searching in things both musical and lyrical. While I know this schizophrenic aesthetic can be disorienting for Harper newcomers, it's the unflinching honesty that brings the converted back again and again. In fact, it's often in the songs in which more than one of these contrasting moods are juxtaposed that Roy produces his most compelling tension--the lilting folk psychedelia of love song "Forbidden Fruit" belies the reality that, save some ambiguity regarding the narrator's age, it's about pedophilia (a fact the song's beauty makes fittingly all-to-easy to ignore). The lush, well-paced "I'll See You Again" places the songwriter's compassion at odds with his stubborn pursuit of his own path, shading a hurtful move with obvious deep consideration. The perennial live favorite "Commune" achieves this contrast perhaps best of all, with Harper exposing love's complexity through his own fickleness, gradually softening the chorus from "And love is my torment/And I'll take when I can/But I'll give in the moment/When you are my woman and I am your man" to "And love is no torment/For we'll give when we can/And we'll live in the moment/When you are my woman and I am your man" and finally altering the final line to "And we'll live for the moment/When she is my woman and I am her man," somehow using a few short words to subtly lay bare the simultaneously selfish and selfless act of reaching out that lies at the heart of love. Oh, let's not forget that the same song also combines Harper's inclination for bodily imagery (enough to make many listeners squirm) with one of his most gloriously distinctive fingerstyle pull-off laden guitar riffs.
In light of my recent complaints against less refined attempts at adding orchestration to pop music, I want to make special note of the contributions of recently-deceased English composer and conductor David Bedford. Appearing on a select handful of tracks, Bedford's arrangements are the quintessence of sympathetic--they swell with strings and blaring brass on the aforementioned "I'll See You Again," lending added drama but also harmonically enhancing Harper's vocal melody. Repeating string figures rhythmically punctuate the guitar part on "Commune" without ever obscuring it, tonally enhancing the lyric's nature imagery and adding variation to the repeating guitar part. Harper's version of "North Country" possesses a polish Dylan never matched, and the strings again swoop below, above and around the polytonality of his guitar line, their liquidity contrasting the more percussive sound of a fingerpicked guitar and at other times emphasizing Harper's naked guitar and vocals with judicious application of one of the most important (yet underutilized) tools in every musician's box--silence. Finally, the arrangement collaboration between Harper and Bedford on the immortal "Twelve Hours of Sunset" produces some of the most spine-tinglingly beautiful moments I've ever heard, as Harper's multi-tracked vocal arrangement explores extended harmony while Bedford employs French horn and dissonance with more strings to funnel tension into the song's hair-raising dual crescendos. Bedford's respect for Harper's songs and his crucial intuitive understanding of the colors his instrumentation contributes take these hallowed additions to the Harper songbook and elevate them even further. In answer to the two orchestration-related questions from my last review, "yes," the songs work without the orchestration, and "yes," each and every added element enhances the song with distinctive character (there's virtually no excess in Bedford's instrumental choices or part writing), which seems to be the ideal outcome in all ways.
Aside from these canonical contributions, Harper also gives us a generous helping of his inimitable coarseness in "Male Chauvinist Pig Blues" and "Magic Woman Liberation Reshuffle," both of which experiment with electric guitars, rock arrangements, and what could politely be referred to as "contentious" attitudes toward monogamy and feminism (it wouldn't be a classic Harper album without some controversy). "Acapulco Gold" combines Harper's love for dope with a rare vocal jazz piano arrangement, while mostly instrumental dedication "Che" successfully stretches Harper's formidable guitar skills into the Spanish realm with some of his best guitar playing on tape. All in all, Valentine is often overshadowed by Harper's more ambitious 70's recordings, but its charms lie in the subtlety and quality of its somewhat more conventionally-constructed songs. Once you've had a taste of singer/songwriter material that's this varied and deep, it's hard to settle for anything less.
Buy it from the artist.
More Roy Harper.