It’s a rare occasion that an artist with a career spanning some five decades releases something that can comfortably, and respectfully, sit amongst their best work, but with Man & Myth, that’s just what Roy Harper has done.
While his peers push out records to keep themselves interested during live outings, Harper’s latest gives David Bowie a run for his money in the unexpected brilliance stakes. He waited even longer than Bowie to unveil his 23rd album – it comes 13 years after his last record, 2000’s The Green Man – and while faithful to the twiddling, absorbing folk he’s known for, Man & Myth is accessible and immediate, despite its downbeat nature.
A weighty record in tone and length – Heaven Is Here clocks in at a whopping 15-and-a-half minutes, and most of its six other tracks are around seven minutes long – it takes folk-rock back to its roots, tackling nature, love, protest and the fate of the outsider. Battling against a genre he’s never felt comfortable with, it’s almost unbearably sad but at the same time triumphant; unashamedly personal, he ensures you feel every single note and word.
Opening track The Enemy sets the tone, with his gravelly, angry vocals taking centre stage. Cloud Cuckooland is a Bob Dylan-esque folk-opera; epic, with layer upon layer of instrumentation, including guitars from a certain Pete Townshend. “We are condemned to make the same mistakes over and over and over again…” he spits, in an attack on modern culture – a perfect and timely modern protest song.
Now in his 70s, the aging process is clearly at the front of his mind; a fuddled mix of regret and acceptance, Stranger is haunting and violent: “Looking in the mirror but I don’t see me, There’s some old ghost in there I’d rather be…” Other songs touch on the passing of time in its many guises, from the gentle, fluttering Time Is Temporary to The Exile, which nudges on psychedelia.
It comes a couple of years after his 70th birthday do – a show at the Royal Festival Hall that saw him joined by the likes of Joanna Newsom and Jonathan Wilson – who recorded much of this record – and Jimmy Page. Other famous fans include the late John Peel – who requested his When an Old Cricketer Leaves the Crease be played at his funeral – Johnny Marr and Kate Bush, who called him “one of the greatest English songwriters”. Despite the plaudits, Harper has maintained a low profile. “I’ve written poetry, prose, essays and articles and gone through the motions of being Roy, but I didn’t have the will to make another album until recently” he recently revealed. “I was inspired to write again around 2009, by many of the younger generation finding me and asking, who are you?”
Man & Myth’s timing is impeccable; released, as it is, at a time when the “younger generation” he refers to – Laura Marling, Mumford and Sons – are continuing to fly the flag for nu-folk both at home and in the US. It’s as though he’s been biding his time, waiting to show the young pretenders how it’s done. And show them he has; at the grand age of 72, he’s grown into his voice and can sing with conviction and honesty, but not at the expense of youthful venom.