Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals’s latest studio album, Call It What It Is, kicks off with a major dad quote: “I remember when sex was dirty / and the air was clean / and everything worth knowing / was in a magazine.”
The whole dad quote thing makes sense, considering Harper has been putting out music for over 20 years and is an actual middle-aged dad presumably living a middle-aged dad life. More specifically, though, this line seems to be Harper acknowledging and embracing this senior status — using his veteran savvy to set the tone for an album so in line with who he is, and what his career has been — and everything feels right.
“When Sex Was Dirty,” the aforementioned opening track, has its aggressive guitar riffs and prominent cowbell followed up with a potpourri of style on other songs that, while not consistent, is no doubt entertaining. There’s cause for confusion when Harper, just two tracks after the lighthearted opener, rolls out a line like “They shot him in the back / now it’s a crime to be Black / so don’t act surprised / when it gets vandalized” on “Call It What It Is.” But maybe, just maybe, that’s Harper’s thing. Maybe making the title track a bluesy, condemning political statement for the masses is Harper’s ultimate “I Don’t Give a Fuck, I’ll Do What I Want, I’ve Done My Time In This Game” moment. This is an artist who has made cuddly ballads about stealing kisses, reggae jams about making peace on earth and seemingly everything in between. And now it’s time for one of music’s most versatile renaissance men to do what he wants.
Ironically enough, one of the better tracks on the album is one that perhaps most lacks a defining identity. “Shine,” the fifth track on the record, vibes. On it, Harper sings, “We shine like a new tattoo / scarred on skin bright as day / across my heart / there is no other way.” Set over a fun, percussion-heavy beat, the production isn’t anything distinct, but there’s bona fide flavor in Harper’s vocals, and it makes for an enjoyable listen.
Quite honestly, some of Harper’s stuff sounds destined to be covered by the local Potbelly cover musician, which isn’t an indictment of his sound as much as an acceptance of it. For those looking for a departure from this type of rock, however, Call It What It Is still has its moments.
“Bones” showcases Harper’s rangy vocals while also revealing an appropriate amount of vulnerability: “Every now and then I get so tired / I rest my bones / sitting alone with my desires / in my bones.” The song’s general feel is in line with the agitated tone Harper conveys in other places on the album. It fits right in, at least as much as anything can on a Ben Harper album.
Cohesiveness has never really been Harper’s thing, and that holds true on Call It What It Is. It’s eclectic — controlled mishmash at its finest, a rollercoaster all the way through. It’s all over the place, but it should still manage to please.