Diamonds on the Inside
In Pleasure and Pain, Danny Clinch's documentary of Ben Harper's 2001 Burn to Shine tour,
Harper is caught throwing a cute-if-cantankerous fit on camera, whining and snapping at a European journalist
like a pot-smoking Thom Yorke. It's funny, but not especially surprising that when faced with a middling
reporter, Harper found his knickers in a bit of a twist: he's been misunderstood by the mainstream music
press for nearly a decade now, and bumbling critics are at least partially to blame for the sloppily cobbled
together batch of tracks on his latest studio release, the scattered Diamonds on the Inside.
Since his 1993 debut, Ben Harper has been getting all tangled up in his influences-- he's inadvertently
hog-tied himself with big, fat superstar ropes, each woven from stringy bits of Hendrix, Redding, Marley,
Plant, Page, and a few stray Dylan hairs. This is as much a product of a lazy press (who relentlessly--
aw, shit!-- point out and examine his many muses) as it is his own musical mishmash, but either way it's
got Harper stuck and wiggling for release. Disparate inspiration isn't a problem on its own, but Harper's
inability to stabilize and carve himself a personality sure is. Neo-blues-soul-metal-punk-reggae-gospel-rock-funk
is far too cumbersome to be a proper qualifier, and Diamonds on the Inside's breathless Rolling
Stone Encyclopedia of Rock whirlwind is tiring, at best. Harper's now-trademark lack of focus-- which
is especially disappointing because dude's got skills with that slide!-- is destined to forever supercede
his considerable songwriting talent.
Diamonds on the Inside opens with its first single, "With My Own Two Hands", an optimistic and
aggressively reggae-inspired bit of dancehall wah-wah, complete with Hammond B3, clavinet, and high, lazy
backing vocals. Harper swings effortlessly from a low, throaty growl to his excellent soul falsetto, and
the rich, dynamic percussion (Oliver Francis Charles on drums) works remarkably well here. It's what happens
next that gives pause: the sparse, southern gospel romp "When It's Good" stars a completely different breed
of Harper, blues-driven and virtually unaccompanied (save a box of rocks, some background singers, and his
Meanwhile, the title track is a thick, sentimental Lynyrd Skynyrd guitar throwdown, featuring a singalong
chorus and sweet, lilting pedal steel, electric piano, bass, and guitars; the aptly titled "Bring the
Funk" is pure gimmick, all synthesizers and poorly channeled Parliament. "So High So Low" is heavy,
Zeppelin-inspired metal thrashing, kick-started by some kind of otherworldly primal scream. And on and
on: slices of this and chunks of that. Slow down, Harps, I'm getting freakin' confused! What kind of
goulash you serving here, anyway?
Despite Diamonds on the Inside's pointed identity crisis, there are still some standout songs.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo pop up on the vocals-only "Picture of Jesus", which, despite its heavy-handed
religious meditations, is a textured, vigorous, and engaging contemporary hymn. The brisk and solo-friendly
"Touch from Your Lust" (seriously, what does that mean?) would have fit nicely on Burn to Shine, with
its Lenny Kravitz bellbottom howls and heavy electric guitar noodling.
Harper has never been a particularly keen lyricist, but the introductory line of "When She Believes" ("The
good Lord is such a good Lord/ With such a good Mother, too") is especially ridiculous, and the "Behind
all of your tears/ There's a smile/ Behind all of the rain/ There's a sunshine for miles and miles" of
"Everything" seems equally uninspired. To the contrary, new-favorite-word "shuck" is employed superbly in
"Bring the Funk" ("Some are jiving/ Some are shuck/ Some are just down on their luck").
To his immense credit, Ben Harper pulls off rock star posturing even though he sits in a chair while playing
live (an achievement Jagger has not yet approached-- maybe this explains the incessant arena-touring?), and
his performances are always charismatic affairs, especially if you're okay with little kids dancing shirtless
outside. It's onstage that Harper excels, his humble grace and organic porch singing somehow capable of
tugging sunburned college students away from the falafel tent and back to the main stage; live, his scattered
influences are far less distracting and his playing takes on a more even and consistent edge.
Other artists have played the don't-pigeonhole-me card with slightly more success-- Beck unapologetically
flits between genres and styles, but has enough sense (or enough handlers) to centralize his records in a
way that makes them thematically comprehensible. Even when artists self-consciously draw from a long,
complicated lineage of diverse sounds and tactics, there still needs to be an organizing principle; ideally,
individual tracks should contribute something substantial to the greater whole, like a chapter in a novel
or a stanza in a poem, each cohesive, directed, and pushing towards a narrative payoff. All fourteen tracks
here are autonomous, but as a record, Diamonds on the Inside feels pretty empty.
-Amanda Petrusich, April 22nd, 2003