Release Date: Sep 23, 2013
Record label: Bella Union
Cheeringly, you can always rely upon Roy Harper to buck any trend. Thirteen long years on from the release of his previous album The Green Man, and at the not-inconsiderable age of 72, Harper clearly isn’t subscribing to the notion that the passage of time steals musicians’ gifts and buries them alongside their mojo. Let’s be unequivocal: Man And Myth would still represent a dauntless throwdown for any young stag basking in the sunlit fecundity of his prime, but for a septuagenarian who’s already been around every block on the map several times over, it borders upon the supernatural.
It’s a rare occasion that an artist with a career spanning some five decades releases something that can comfortably, and respectfully, sit amongst their best work, but with Man & Myth, that’s just what Roy Harper has done. While his peers push out records to keep themselves interested during live outings, Harper’s latest gives David Bowie a run for his money in the unexpected brilliance stakes. He waited even longer than Bowie to unveil his 23rd album – it comes 13 years after his last record, 2000’s The Green Man – and while faithful to the twiddling, absorbing folk he’s known for, Man & Myth is accessible and immediate, despite its downbeat nature.
Roy Harper, loved as he is by everyone from Page & Plant and Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom and Jonathan Wilson, has always existed as a shadow in the hallway of the music business, rather than a presence than its living room. He's also been misunderstood by critics more often than not. He is a poet who happens to play a very decent guitar and write fine melodies.
Roy Harper's first album in 13 years is an absolute corker on which he runs the gamut from cutting protest songs (Cloud Cuckooland, which lays into vacuous celebs and bankers) and sweet balladry (January Man) to mystical folk odysseys (the 23-minute suite Heaven Is Here and The Exile, nearly the equal of The Same Old Rock from Stormcock). I particularly like The Stranger, which finds him staring into the mirror at "some old ghost", and the way the initially wistful Time Is Temporary heads off into a bluesy jam with a banjo. The album boasts arresting string arrangements throughout which could almost have been done by the late Robert Kirby, and the fluid electric guitar and booming fretless bass on the last track are gorgeous.
Roy Harper is back, and on bravely impressive form. It has been 13 years since his last studio album, and two years since his remarkable 70th birthday concert at London's Royal Festival Hall, at which he was joined by Joanna Newsom and Jimmy Page. On that occasion he had trouble with his voice, but there are no hints of such problems here. His distinctively acrobatic singing and his guitar work are on powerfully confident form, and several new songs compare well to his classic work from the 1970s.
Being immortalized in song by Led Zeppelin-- and collaborating with everyone from Kate Bush to Paul McCartney to Pink Floyd-- ought to do wonders for one’s career. That hasn’t always been the case for Roy Harper. In some ways he’s been the invisible glue that’s held together generations of singer-songwriters, a one-man secret history of progressive folk-rock underscoring the continuum that stretches from Bert Jansch to Joanna Newsom.
Roy Harper is renowned as something of an awkward bastard. When the world was bobbing its long hair and shaking its joss sticks to three chords and the truth, troubadour Harper was releasing the likes of 1973’s Stormcock, a 40-minute-plus album featuring just four songs of jazz-inspired epic folk rock. When signed to EMI and primed for the mainstream in the Seventies he managed to contract a blood disease that nearly killed him and while signed to Chrysalis in the USA a few years later he apparently attempted to slip past them an album cover that depicted Harper himself walking on water, a bearded, English Christ.
It may seem somewhat presumptuous, but in truth, it takes a title like Man & Myth to best describe Roy Harper, symbol of iconic insurgence and hero to such musical mainstays as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (both of whom acknowledged Harper in their own recordings), as well as a host of millennials — Joanna Newsom, Devendra Banhart and Jonathan Wilson, among the many. A stern curmudgeon, unapologetic romantic and resolute anarchist, Harper created the blueprint for eccentric and eclectic British folk musings in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, decades prior to the quirky leanings of today’s so-called nu folk contingent. Harper’s output has been somewhat scattered of late — his last album, the dubious The Death of God, was released in 2005 — and the flashes of brilliance that characterised such seminal efforts as Lifemask, HQ and Valentine have been sadly scarce of late.