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9 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Flat Baroque and Berserk' (Harvest)

In more argumentative moods I will sometimes put out the opinion that Bob Dylan ain't half the songwriter that Roy Harper is. I don't know if I really believe that, or why it would matter anyway since they are both great, but clearly I'm holding on to all these Harper records (where I own exactly one of Dylan) for a reason, though that reason has more to do with their relative availabilities than a true assessment of preference. But when I was going through a phase, often connected to drinking a bit, I would make this argument - or lager-ument, if you get my drift - to try to provoke my Dylan-obsessed friends into discovering the depth and sophistication of Harper's oeuvre - especially as he was from their own country and Dylan was from mine, so therefore they would relate to delicate English nuances I would never completely pick up on. Anyway, I realise now that a better comparison is not Dylan but Neil Young, not just in the way they are split between folky/electric work and their penchant for self-indulgence (since you could apply the same to Dylan), but in how much of himself Harper seems to put out there, closer to Young than Dylan, where you are always at arm's length (even if it's sometimes Greil Marcus's arm). Flat Baroque and Berserk isn't quite a step backwards from Folkjokeopus but it feels like it slips a bit into the cracks between it's predecessor and Stormcock. It's actually less baroque than Folkjokeopus (maybe because he's broke from Shel Talmy's invoice) so there's a lot more straightforward strummin'-and-singin', you know, the singer-songwriter genre, which is not for everyone. 'Don't You Grieve' and 'I Hate the White Man' open things off, the former being a catchy song from the perspective of Judas Iscariot and the latter being a confused bit of political sympathising that does not hold up so well in 2017, despite Harper's long spoken introduction. It's like he know how complicated this issue would be, and he was trying to proactively get ahead of the issue, but my problem is not really with the song itself (well-written, and occasionally lovely) but with the nearly blackface nature of the whole thing, most evident in his pronunciation of the word 'the' in the titular line. But let's move on; it could have been a lot worse and it's the thought that counts, right? Flat Baroque and Berserk has 'Another Day', one of his most beloved songs (and most well-known thanks to This Mortal Coil's beautiful rendition, which we'll get to in ten years or so). The arrangement benefits it greatly, lifting the 'I loved you a long time ago' lyrics out of the mix to feel like a natural gust of wind, carrying it into the ether - his voice is so soft and the strings are also restrained, making this the most baroque cut on the record but a pretty restrained one. And this is one of those tracks where the sheer beauty just overwhelms everything else.  This is among the more Apollonian cuts and fits in with the album's general theme of loss and memory (though that really emerges on side two, after side one closes with 'Goodbye', an elegy to someone who was shot). Most of side two excels; 'Davey', is a brief minor-key, wistful number about his brother; the drifting flying carpet ride of 'East of the Sun'; the perfect, infallible 'Francesca'. 'Song of the Ages' is a perfect balance between guitar, harp and voice and is also beautiful to the point of being nearly paralysing.'Tom Tiddler's Ground' echoes 'How Does it Feel', as the two longer compositions on each side, but 'Tiddler' is the superior cut for sure. This, like most of the album, is only Harper's voice and guitar, except for a delicately meandering keyboard line, which only really comes to the forefront during the chorus. As details go, it's magical, and right when it's about to wear out its welcome, the record segues into 'Francesca'. It's only the balls-out rock of 'Hell's Angels' to close which feels unnatural; Harper's taste in sequencing is sometimes questionable (see Flashes from the Archives of Oblivion, when we get there). The record comes clad in a gatefold which is rather silly (given the cover photo) but features typed out lyrics inside, to everything except for 'Feeling All the Saturday' (which is actually a lovely ditty despite mentioning a toddler squeezing shit out of his diaper).

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