Review: Ben Harper Returns with a Musical Gauntlet on ‘Bloodline Maintenance’

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Ben Harper | Bloodline Maintenance | (Chrysalis)

4 out of 5 stars

Those disappointed in the extremely low-key, solo, instrumental acoustic nature of Ben Harper’s 2020 Winter Is for Lovers will be delighted to know that the singer/songwriter has returned in a big way. 

While his Innocent Criminals backing unit remains M.I.A. (he overdubs the majority of this music by playing nearly every instrument), these acerbic songs of love, historical ire, and calls for civil justice recall some of Harper’s most searing work. 

After a brief but hypnotic opening where Harper overlays his voice multiple times decrying the state of the current world situation, he lays down a verbal and musical gauntlet.

Tangled in a creeping, wiry funk straight out of Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On, he lashes out, howling I say Black Lives Matter/’Cause history says we don’t/You’re either a Christian or a racist/You can’t be both with as much roiling intensity and biting anger as anything since his promising 1994 debut.

That’s just the opening salvo in an album that unleashes Harper’s fury about everything from the events of January 6, 2021, on the appropriately titled “Where Did We Go Wrong” (They stormed the castle/But the king turned out to be a pawn) to a sumptuous “More Than Love” (he adores his partner More than any religion/Wants to save your soul) channeling Marvin Gaye’s sexuality. 

Combining the personal and political and adding jazzy horns for good measure on “Smile at the Mention,” Harper cries for “justice unserved” referring to the history of African Americans, but then smiles when he thinks of his lover. 

There are some philosophical and musical connections to Gil Scott-Heron’s approach, but Harper moves further into blues in songs like the rugged Delta slide stylings of “Knew the Day Was Comin’.” 
His impressive standup bass playing is another highlight of an album that pulls no punches, taking a stand regardless of the blowback. Bloodline Maintenance once again displays Harper’s stirring artistic and conceptual bravery that few other artists dare to tempt.

Photo Credit: Michael Halsband

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