What do you get when you cross James Taylor with Bob Marley? A goofy looking baby? Perhaps, but more importantly, you get Ben Harper. Chances are, youíve heard at least one of his songs and you didnít even know it. There was a commercial running a few years back from the Partners for a Drug Free America that contained the first few notes of Harperís depressing "Give a Man a Home". I grew to hate that song because the commercial was played relentlessly on almost any TV station I changed it to. Fast-forward to a few years laterÖ
I have recently been trying to expand my musical horizons beyond the hard rock genre. Over the past few months, the discs being popped into my CD player have changed quite drastically. No longer do James Hetfield and Gavin Rossdale consume the majority of space in my collection. Iíve moved on to, dare I say, softer music. Music thatís more appeasing to a headache. Sometimes a soft acoustic guitar and a gentle voice is just what Iím in need of, and the guy who delivers it with natural charisma is the aforementioned Ben Harper. Along with fellow folk-rockateer Jack Johnson, Harper has been filling the voids of silence in my life.
Though I still believe that commercial to be as whack as (or whacker than) crack, the song played in its background has grown on me since hearing it along with the other gems on Fight for Your Mind. And speaking of that PDFA commercial: donít you think itís odd that they picked a song by a man who openly admits, even on this very album, to smoking pot? Apparently, they were hoping kids would do as he said, not as he did. The most blatant references to his leaf-loving hobby are found on one of the best songs from this album: "Burn One Down". If this was the only song you heard from Mr. Harper, you would probably think he was Bob Marleyís long-lost son. Bongos, blunts, and a crackly voice means that a great deal of associations could be made between the two. Even their messages are similar. Here, Ben asks his listeners to see his hobby as a positive rather than a negative and to just accept it. ďMy choice is what I choose to do/and if Iím causing no harm it shouldnít bother you."
Besides sharing in Marleyís fondness of herb, he shares his views on society, which he tells us about in the opening track, "Oppression". The constant repetition of that word keeps us focused right on his message...oppression is bad! Very blunt (no pun intended) and very strong. When you put that message of anti-tyranny over a catchy acoustic hook, it makes you want to sing along in your car with the windows down and a megaphone pressed against your lips.
Some other highlights include "Ground On Down", which breaks away from the ho-hum acoustic repertoire to showcase some electric sensibilities. The first 50 seconds of the song is just pure distortion. No notesÖ just noise. But, thankfully, that gives way to a consistent southern-sounding riff that clings to your eardrum like herpes to Paris Hilton. The song makes constant references to God and the devil and how to get in good with the man upstairs, but at the same time relates it to his own relationship. It also delivers the best line on the album: ďI have faith in a few things/Divinity and grace/But even when Iím on my knees/I know the devil prays."
Ben quickly dips his hand back into the acoustic river to trickle some downhearted strumming back into his songwriting with "Another Lonely Day". The title says it all: heís lonesome. This song is a lot like watching a dwarf trying to reach for a jar of peanut butter on the top shelf at a grocery store; even though it should be sad, thereís some part of you that feels better after listening to it. "Gold To Me" moves towards a much more upbeat, even happy, mood. Itís like taking that same situation in the grocery store, and having the jar of peanut butter fall off the shelf and right into that tiny pair of hands. Itís one of those songs that make you instantly bob around like an idiot. Itís probably the closest thing to country music youíll ever hear me listening to. On the title track, "Fight For Your Mind", Ben takes that same kind of cheerful stride with his guitar and applies it to an even more positive message. He urges, ďIf youíre getting up/then take a stand." It shares a similar message to "Oppression", but on this one he takes a more proactive stance. The aforementioned "Give a Man a Home" starts off a little shaky but gathers itself together for the chorus, which is the main highlight of the song for me.
Unfortunately, not all of the songs on this 14 track disc are gems. Some of them are pretty pedestrian, while others are borderline boring. "Please Me Like You Want To" has some very insightful lyrics on what itís like to be in love with someone who just wants to be friends. Having been in a similar situation, his words hit close to home. Still, the music behind the words is just too bland to ever capture my full attention. The double shot of "Excuse Me Mr." and "People Lead" offers more on the general anti-ďthe man" theme, but gets crushed beneath lackadaisical musicianship. "By My Side" skips along the same trail provides a great chorus, but leaves the rest of it a bit iffy. I do like the inclusion of the organ, though. "One Road to Freedom" is Harperís attempt at an epic closer, but it falls short thanks to some aimless drifting through parts of the song. I donít think he realizes that time isnít the only factor in what makes a song epic. Still, the song has enough solidly satisfying parts in it to justify its inclusion in the album. I just wish he had condensed it a bit.
I sense that Harper started to lose some steam towards the end of the album, creating two intensely boring songs back to back. "Power of the Gospel" is just plain preachy. I canít even count the number of times he uses the word ďgospel," but I know that itís far too many. Itís great to be a religious person, but that doesnít mean you need to shout it out to the world, on a disc, every five seconds. It literally felt like Ben was grabbing me by the back of the head and rubbing my face into the holy genitalia of the Messiah. "God Fearing Man", while being less preachy, is more boring than watching milk turn sour. He shouldíve disowned these two songs while he still had the chance.
But even though Fight For Your Mind ends on a dismal note, that doesnít mean itís not a good album. Most songs are above average and overshadow those that fall below the fault line. If this CD doesnít have you bobbing along, it will have you in deep thought. And to me, thatís exactly what a man and his guitar should do.