Album Reviews

Nick Harper – Treasure Island

(Sangraal) UK release date: 23 January 2006

Anyone who has seen the inferno that is Nick Harper’s live show usually leaves as puzzled by his relative lack of recognition as they are dazzled by his playing.

Reasons for his lack of fame include a refusal to play the music industry’s superficial games, and lyrics that unceremoniously confront the decisions of our leaders with a passionate zeal.

Because of this he has, in a career than now spans over 20 years, veered dangerously close to alienating the audience he does have. Inevitably there are moments of hum-dinging anger on Treasure Island, such as Sleeper Cell and anti-war rant Knuckedraggers. The latter contains the line “how can I be happy with you in my song”, presumably directed at Messrs Bush and Blair, reflecting sentiments expressed recently by Rufus Wainwright that the modern day songwriter has no choice but to confront these unpleasant issues.

But overall, the albums political exhorting is overshadowed by examples of sublime songwriting and some of the prettiest melodies of Harper’s career. In between the bile he spits and the vocal gymnastics he performs, there is a lilting, soulful side to him that dominates the album, resulting in an altogether more satisfying work than 2003’s Blood Songs.

‘Haunting’ is an adjective tragically overused in music criticism, but the most affecting track, Bloom, can be described in no other way. It is touched with a magical, ethereal production that emphasises the ghostly finger-picking guitar work and the often harrowing sound of Harper’s famous falsetto, now removed from the celebratory context of a gig it is usually found in.

Around The Sun and Underground Stream are additional triumphs, while the album closes with a bizarre spoken-word track where Harper evokes nonsense poet Stanley Unwin, describing a forgotten rustic time in Britain’s history. Not quite Chaucer but a light hearted conclusion to what is at times a very dark record.

The title song’s theme is that Britain is full of fantastic people with big hearts and important voices, and it’s just that we are represented badly by our leaders. “From the shore to the highland/This is yours, this is my land” sings Harper, evoking distinct parallels with that great original “champion of the working-man”, Woody Guthrie. Nick Harper’s considerable appeal lies beyond merely his message (his extraordinary musical gifts remain best experienced in a live setting), but he along with Billy Bragg, Harper collaborators The Levellers and his own dad Roy, perform an essential duty in asserting that this sceptred isle deserves its own Guthrie-like promotion of the innate poetry of the ordinary citizen.

This album deserves to be heard by more people than who will hear it. Nick Harper is living proof that beyond the linear mainstream, vital talent is at work proving that all is not lost in today’s musical climate. For the few aficionados out there, Nick has exceeded himself beyond all that has gone before. An uncategorisable, eclectic, passionate success.

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More on Nick Harper
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London
Interview: Nick Harper
Nick Harper – Treasure Island
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London