Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals: Call It What It Is
Against the roiling backdrop of an overheated election year and high-profile moments of message-heavy black expression writ large—Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance and Kendrick Lamar’s eyepopping turn at the Grammys being two of the most indelible—it seems only natural that Ben Harper should come out with a new album. Social activism has always played a role in his music—tempered, to be sure, with a mystical aura that recalls his hero Bob Marley, who made the balancing act between protest and provocation an art form unto itself.
The title track of Call It What It Is, which also marks the return of Harper’s long-running band The Innocent Criminals—reunited in 2015 after a seven-year hiatus—pretty much sets the tone. “They shot him in the back; now it’s a crime to be black,” Harper sings over a gutbucket slide-guitar blues riff, as drummer Oliver Charles punctuates the chorus of “Call it what it is…murder!” with a pop-pop-pop on the snare. It’s simple, stark and direct, taking up the topics of racism, police brutality and #BlackLivesMatter while stressing that we can all participate in the solution, cops and government included.
Harper explores variations on the theme, whether it’s a longing for the revolutionary idealism of simpler times (on the hard-rocking “When Sex Was Dirty”) or a lament, cross-stitched with hope, on the divisiveness of American politics (on the reggae-fueled “Finding Our Way”). But he’s also a romantic at heart and never gets caught up in preachiness or polemics. “Shine,” with its creamy organ hook and bouncy beat, is all love
and heartbreak, while the thrashy single “Pink Balloon” conjures up a free-spirited femme fatale for the ages.
When Harper and The Innocent Criminals rocked the Fillmore in San Francisco for their first reunion shows last year, the blueprint for Call It What It Is was already drawn. Before rehearsals even started, Harper decided first to throw the new songs at them in the studio, going straight for the jugular. It was a calculated risk that paid off, with the band sounding fresh, inventive and unquestionably on fire. Breaking up is hard to do, but as Harper himself has noted, who knew making up could feel this sweet?