Roy Harper has often been referred to as an acquired taste. A distinctly unique voice, a peculiarly individual sense of melody, a refusal to be bound to any of the strictures that would normally be associated with a late 60s troubadour-turned early 70s singer-songwriter, Harper has employed all these weapons against the “folkie” bag into which he was dropped in the days when that term actually meant something, yet even the records that are acknowledged as classics can divide a room in less time than it takes to sing “Matty Groves.”
His return to the fray after a decade-long absence, however, seems to have changed things considerably. Magazines that might never have touched a new Harper album in the 1980s and 1990s are hailing the conquering hero; his back catalog, beautifully remastered and repackaged by Harper himself through the 2000s, is being roundly rediscovered, and no matter how overused the phrase “national treasure” might be, Harper has slipped into that category without even trying. Man or Myth is the title of his new album. Now you know why.
Goldmine last featured Harper back in 2009, in the midst of the reissue campaign, but with Man or Myth already gestating. “There is a new album on the horizon, but I had prostate cancer last year, and that held all of that back. I think I’m out of the woods now, but it’s kind of… you have to think of other things in life when something like that is going on. In fact you’re thinking about no life, which is a big step.
“Various of my contemporaries remind me now and again, by dying, that I’m somewhere on the list, but I’m trying to avoid it. As you get older, you get obviously more susceptible to age, and age related stuff and you have to put your eggs into baskets that are going to work for you.” At the time, he said, one of his biggest baskets was Science Friction, the label he formed specifically to handle his reissue campaign. But the songs kept coming, and so, here we are.
Harper’s musical career, for those who need reminding, falls into three distinct phases. First came his years as the aforementioned troubadour, playing the folk clubs and recording albums that were already stretching the boundaries of what his audience might have expected. Then came what we could call his prog years, signed to EMI’s Harvest subsidiary, recording with and namechecked by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Chris Spedding and more.
And then came... well, the same kind of commercial oblivion that greeted so many of his contemporaries as the 70s slipped into the 80s, record label interest began to decline, audience awareness slackened off, the gigs became smaller, the sales smaller still. Arguably, Harper’s output through the 80s and 90s was at least as enjoyable as the records he made through the first half of the 70s. But it’s the earlier discs that remain memorable today, that peerless sequence that ran from Flat Baroque in 1970 through to Bullinamingvase (aka One Of Those Days in England) in 1977, and inbetween times delivered a quartet that remains peerless even today: Stormcock, Lifemask, Valentine and HQ (aka When an Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease).
Those are the albums that are routinely raised high as examples of Harper at his very best; and those, Man and Myth’s UK coverage suggests, are those that were surely his own touchstones as the new album came together. The seven songs here certainly stalk the same corridors, melancholy giving way to intensity; lyrics that leave you thinking so hard about one line that you miss the next three or four... an old Harper trick that insists you listen to the album at least a dozen times before you can even begin to say what a song is “about”; and a sense, even before you’ve made that determination, that Harper’s worldview is just so damned honest that you find yourself agreeing with him whether you feel the same way or not.
Age is a concern here... or not a concern, but a palpable companion. Like recent Dylan, Harper is not so much acknowledging his advancing years as letting them share his living space. Unlike Dylan, the Harper voice is as incisive and instantly recognizable as it ever was, to the point where one song, the defiantly rocking (and deliciously condemnatory) “Cloud Cuckooland,” flames as hard as anything he recorded in his youth. Pete Townshend, another growing-old-reasonably-disgracefully rocker, adds the scything guitars.
It’s a coruscating listen, perhaps the simplest lyric and sentiment on the album, but that’s no bad thing. “Roll on armageddon,” Harper mumbles over the fade, and you kind of know what he means. The young curmudgeon of the past has become an old curmudgeon, but - and this is an important point to make - nowhere do you get the sense that Harper has slipped into the default setting of so many septugenarians, that everything was rosy when he was younger. He knows that it wasn’t... and if he does ever forget that, twenty-two previous albums line up to remind him of that. Rather, Harper has never been happy with what he sees unfolding around us, and his greatest strength has always been his ability to express that unhappiness without ever appearing to pontificate or preach, or indulge in absurd “solutions.”
The first half of the album spreads out over five songs of between four and seven minutes in length; the finale is eight minutes of “The Exile,” which might well rate among the loveliest songs he has ever written. But the heart of Man or Myth is the quarter-hour-plus devoted to “Heaven Is Here,” an epic that has already been compared to 1971’s Stormcock, but possibly raised above that by the sheer intricacy of a lyric that compares a rumination on youth with the quest of the Argonauts, with so many twists of the knife that it’s hard to decide which line hurts the most. “O how do I retrace my youth, from present lie to former truth.”
As powerful as it is poetic, as electric as it is eclectic, Man or Myth is a genuine triumph, a magnificent achievement, a glorious return. A decade ago, maybe it would have just been passed over barely-listened to, as one more in a long line of discs from a folkie no-one had cared about for years. But a decade ago, we weren’t listening to a lot of the music that we should have been, and if Man or Myth has one recommendation to make, and one that I heartily concur with, it’s to follow up its purchase with the rest of Roy Harper’s catalog. Including the 80s and 90s.
Because this isn’t a “return to form.” It’s business as brilliant usual.
Man or Myth is released on vinyl and CD on October 29th