As its title suggests, Ben Harper’s ambitious new release “Both Sides of the Gun” has a split personality.
Divided into two unlabeled nine-song discs (a special boxed edition contains a third CD of alternate takes and a live version of his 1999 “Burn to Shine” album track “Beloved One”), the set favors softer, acoustic-oriented and more personal songs on one program, harder-edged topical rockers on the other. It further separates the joy of his recent marriage to actress Laura Dern and his concern over current events like the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina.
In light of today’s technology, Harper points out that it is a conceptual double-album in the “classic sense.”
“Any [contemporary] album that takes up the full CD capacity is essentially a double-record,” he says, explaining that in the vinyl LP era, an hours worth of music would require a two-record set. The two CDs making up “Both Sides of the Gun” each clock in at under 35 minutes and would thereby fit comfortably onto one disc.
But after Harper realized the dichotomous nature of the songs, the two-disc route, while problematic from a record company standpoint, was the sensible way to go.
“It wasn’t going to be two separate entities originally,” he relates while noting that his albums typically blend such diverse songs and styles. “But trying to fit these 18 songs onto one disc was an endless process, like figuring out a Rubik’s Cube with an extra side on it: I saw that the moods and sounds were polar opposites and that maybe I could make two shorter records. Besides, shorter records of 30 to 35 minutes are in vogue now, like the Strokes or the Vines.”
But the heavily tattooed Harper, who appears on Jack Johnson’s chart-topping “Curious George” album and is featured in Laird Hamilton’s “White Knuckle Extreme” surfing DVD, had to consider his rabid jamband fan base.
“I could have put them out individually, but I wouldn’t have been satisfied creatively and I didn’t think my fans would be, either,” he says. “They’ve come to expect a solid hour-plus out of my records, so I stuck to that. And I have to serve my own sincerity first.”
With titles like “Reason to Mourn” and “More Than Sorry,” the tunes that make up the softer disc take on a melancholy tone. But it ends with “Happy Everafter in Your Eyes,” an intimate love song that was requested by Heath Ledger as a lullaby for his baby girl.
“But it could be about my wife, your wife, your daughter — as organic and natural an extension of your own life,” says Harper. “The freedom of interpretation is what defines a song — and why it can last.”
The songs on the other disc, however, are confrontational. The percolating “Black Rain” condemns the government’s response to Katrina while alluding to Iraq; the title track blues-rocker refers outright to “a war that can’t be won.”
“We’re facing an aggressive assault of propaganda from all directions,” Harper declares. “I love it here, but I refuse to accept the force-feeding of this administrations perspective on culture, the environment and international diplomacy — which is at an all-time low.”
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