Ben Harper’s Both Sides Evokes Marital Bliss, Blasts Bush

Like Harper's 2001 live LP, album is a double: divided into rock and acoustic discs.

Ben Harper recently wed his longtime girlfriend, actress Laura Dern, and he’s hoping his new album will inspire people who are taking the plunge.

“I hope in the long term, a hundred years from now, someone might be walking down the aisle to it. That would mean a lot to me,” the roots rocker said of “Happy Ever After in Your Eyes,” one the highlights from his seventh studio album, Both Sides of the Gun, which came out earlier this week.

Like Harper’s 2001 live memento, Live From Mars, Both Sides is a double album: one disc features heavier, rock-styled fare (veering from the Zeppelin-esque “Serve Your Soul” to the Sly Stone-esque funk of the album’s title track), while the other comprises delicate acoustic ballads like “Happy Ever After” and “Picture in a Frame,” which mourns the death of a loved one.

Although Both Sides of the Gun could have fit onto a single disc, “I split it up so that the music would be more coherent,” Harper said.

Lyrically, the album is as wide-ranging as its music: Songs like “Happy Ever After” contrast with “Black Rain,” a bitter tirade against the Bush administration’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “You left them swimming for their lives, down in New Orleans,” he sings. “It won’t be long till the people flood the streets and take you down.”

“I don’t even know who he is,” Harper said of Bush. “The name is familiar, but if I’m gonna acknowledge a president, he’s gotta act like one.”

Compared to the week-long sessions for There Will Be a Light, Harper’s 2004 collaboration with long-running gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama (see “Ben Harper And The Blind Boys Of Alabama Bring The Gospel To The Apollo” ), Both Sides of the Gun was recorded over three months — but spontaneity was still a key element.

“We only did one take of every song,” Harper said. “It was mostly performed live. We didn’t do a lot of overdubs. I just want it to be honest music: I’m just trying to capture a moment. Music shouldn’t be overly cerebral for me. It should be [more about] emotions.”

The album also features Harper branching out instrumentally. Best-known as a lap-steel guitar virtuoso, he plays tabla (Indian hand drums) on “Better Way,” a track that features storied multi-instrumentalist David Lindley on the tambura, an Indian lute that provides a drone throughout the song. Harper said the song pays homage to late Beatle George Harrison, generally acknowledged as the first Western pop musician to incorporate Eastern Indian classical music into rock with his sitar playing on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” in 1965.

In the future, Harper hopes to incorporate other influences by collaborating with Ecuadorian and Peruvian folk artists. Which raises the question: Is there a kind of music that doesn’t float Harper’s boat?

“I’m not really a hater in that regard,” he said. “I try to give leeway to anybody who steps up to the mic and tries to get their soul sound on. I haven’t spent enough time with polka,” he laughed, “[but] if I spent some time with it, I might love it.”