On the front cover of Man And Myth, Roy Harper’s first album in 13 years, is a black and white close-up of the 72 year old affixed with devil horns, looming sternly, like an angry Pan. It’s an appropriately striking image, simultaneously theatrically silly and deadly serious, for an album as suffused with anger and mythopoecism as this one.
Roy Harper, the stentorian eccentric behind underrappreciated-in-their-time folk epics like Stormcock and Lifemask, has been stirred out of studio retirement by the growing awareness and deserved critical appreciation of his back catalogue, no doubt helped by accolades from sources as diverse and authoritative as Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom, Johnny Marr, and Jimmy Page. Or maybe it’s the growing number of people around Harper’s own age listening to his work. On the Bella Union press release webpage, there is a quote from Harper:
“…it’s also been those of my own generation, who said they’d never bothered to listen to me until now, but in the process of looking for something else they might like, they’d found me, and some said they now knew why they’d kept hearing my name.”
It’s hard to imagine someone with as powerful a presence as Harper needing a confidence boost but then again, it’s also hard to imagine what it must be like to not be granted the appreciation you fully deserve until you’re in your early seventies.
Harper’s voice soars across the guitars and piano of album opener The Enemy: “We are soldiers of a different world/ Both her and I/ We fight the shadow doppelgangers”. Are these mysterious shadow people the politicians or empty-headed celebrities which are the subject of Harper’s cold contempt through-out the album? Later in the song he sings “We’re don’t live in one village anymore” with a kind of aching regret that is so convincing you can forgive the slightly clunky lines which follow.
The title of the second track Time is Temporary is a perfect example of the sort of gnostic paradoxes which obsess Harper. A section in which string arrangements seem to offer portent of some kind of darkening of horizons gives way to a repetition of the title over and over atop a rustling bed of guitar, banjo and pizzicato strings, musing over the words like one would a zen riddle. The opening riffs of The Stranger are initially reminiscent of When a Man Dies, Doll By Doll’s ghostly setting of Anna Akhmatova’s poem before the song and Harper’s voice explode into a droning, banjo-led stomp of a chorus about a woman who “betrayed her own heart/ like she’d never been in love”. Cloud Cuckooland is a rocking condemnation of the culture of celebrity which sees Harper singing “We are condemned!” with that same heart-broken regret turned bitter and furious, featuring blistering guitar from guest Pete Townsend.
But it’s the last track of the album which is most devastating. A musical dramatization of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts, sung from the point of view of an unnamed Argonaut. Harper steers the narrative over blooming strings and warbling fretless bass, through dazzling feats of singing and and over dizzying emotional peaks until the music begins to take on a feeling of organic life, some kind of demonic presence invoked into being as Harper chants “The truth inside/ the truth inside/ the beauty of free thought/ the danger of the truth beyond/ the truth of last resort”, guitars flickering and and dancing like fire, drums hammering down to a moment of gnostic ecstatic revelation promised by the song’s title: Heaven is Here.
This moment dissolves into a haze of murmuring, only to have the song’s second act, titled The Exile, burst out onto a rolling landscape, the same widescreen elemental territory as Jackie Leven’s best work, Harper’s words echoing across the picture “Life is eternal/ death is eternal”.
So, then. Man And Myth. Seven slabs of baroque, epic Harperian folk music that will nourish your soul and widen your perspective.