For such an acknowledge master in British songwriting, Roy Harper has been strangely neglected for many years, with much of his work unavailable, hard to find or prohibitively expensive. This summer, that lamentable situation is finally set to change, with Harper’s back catalogue being made available digitally for the first time. There can be little doubt that renewed interest in Harper’s work comes not just because he turns 70 this year, but also as a result of a new generation of musicians that he has influenced, most notably Joanna Newsom (who coaxed Harper from retirement to support her at her London shows last year) and Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes. This two volume compilation offers a taster of his work and, as a result, is more appropriate for the uninitiated than for any of Harper’s long term admirers. There are no curios or bonus tracks.
Harper is a particularly difficult artist to compile or summarise, given his tendency towards whimsy and substantial flights of artistic fancy. The curators of this set have made a very clear decision to focus on his more easily digestible songs than on any of his more protracted and ambitious statements, some of which have landed Harper with the perhaps unhelpful ‘progressive folk’ label. This means there is no room for The Lord’s Prayer, an epic protest song that occupied an entire side of his 1973 album Lifemask. It also means there is nothing at all from what many agree is his visionary masterpiece, 1971’s Stormcock.
Accepting that Songs Of Love And Loss is an unfairly one-dimensional portrait of Harper’s work, there is still much to admire here – and there should be more than enough to tempt a new audience into further investigating his wide ranging catalogue. In some ways, it’s hard to pin down precisely why Harper has been so important – his guitar picking demonstrates considerable skill, but there were other comparably gifted guitar players in the British folk scene. His voice, though amiable, lacks the distinctive quality of many of his peers or indeed those who have claimed his influence. Yet careful listening, even to the relatively straightforward opener Black Clouds, reveals crucial details – some unusual, unexpected chord changes and an inherently relaxed, unforced, sometimes even imperfect delivery.
Among this selection of 23 of his songs are some truly superb moments. There’s the mysterious, metaphysical All You Need Is, in which Harper’s voice deftly shifts in tone and attack with the wide-ranging melody. It is also the moment in which Harper appears to accidentally predict the advent of Web 2.0 with the wonderful lyric about “twittering into emptiness together”. The brief, deceptively simple Francesca could all too easily be dismissed as throwaway were it not for its obvious honesty and naturally clear delivery. There’s also the vividly painful Another Day, memorably covered by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, which is among the greatest of desperately sad songs, a masterful depiction of a love affair that never was.
Songs Of Love And Loss, mercifully, does not seek to present Harper as a lone troubadour, in spite of its notable omissions. The selections from his later material show his exploration of a full band sound. Particularly wonderful is Hallucinating Light, a comparably lengthy track with a haunting, memorable melody that provides plenty of space for exposition and development. Whilst some of this material can be easily dated to the time of its recording, with the increasing use of chorus effects on the guitar, there can be little arguing with songs as striking and beautiful as Sleeping At The Wheel.
This compilation is a powerful restatement of Harper’s core talents, even though it only hints at his considerable versatility and his vaunting ambition. His songs are more than worthy of rediscovery – and it is wonderful that this compilation and the ensuing reissue programme may bring him to an entirely new audience within his own lifetime.