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9 April 2017

Roy Harper - 'Lifemask' (Chrysalis)

This one tends to get passed over, falling among a run of far better albums, and my memory of the sound is that its all clangy electric guitars mostly strummed without much accompaniment. Side two is given over entirely to 'The Lords Prayer', which may be the longest of all Harper songs but it lacks the dynamic magic of some of this other great long pieces. But side one is bookended by great songs, 'Highway Blues' and 'South Africa'. The latter is a perfect little love song (I have no idea why it's titled such), with swirling, multi-tracked guitars and layers of voice giving it an ethereal 4AD sound, a decade before that was a thing. On this song the heavy-handed production (engineered by John Leckie, who did the next few Harper albums too) works, but in other places I find it to be a bit much. Compared to Stormcock, there isn't really that many more affectations on the instruments, and the synths are mostly held to 'Highway Blues' and 'The Lord's Prayer'. What's missing here is the pastoral feeling, the classic folkie sound which is a conventional thing for me to pine for, but whatever - it's something I love about Harper. That chilling feeling is only really present in 'All Ireland'; the rest of Lifemask is given over to more prog-leaning material. 'Highway Blues' is still a good song, with quintessentially Harperian rambling lyrics, and huge vocal explosions. And of course 'The Lords Prayer', over half of the record, has its moments. It's a song written while Harper was dangerously ill, and as an example of him trying to pack everything possible into one song it's fascinating, with the lyrics thankfully printed out so you can realise that most of them are lines beginning with 'whose...'. But sung and put into a 22 minute song with Jimmy Page and a full band, it somehow just becomes a mess. The man is capable of writing a super catchy pop song and there's none of that here - not a hook to hold onto, and the long spoken introduction establishes a nice podcast atmosphere but the rest of the song doesn't hold up. The 'introduction' to the liner notes is a somewhat whiny screed about his lack of commercial success and in the credits he mentions that one assistant engineer couldn't handle working on 'The Lords Prayer' which maybe should have been a sign. But the man's work has been so stellar to this point that I've overlooked this misstep, and the record which follows more than makes up for the dearth of delicate, romantic love songs. Apparently most version of Lifemask came as a cool gatefold that opened up around his face, but this Chrysalis issue takes the cheap route, so that could be another reason I'm grumpy about this particular record.

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