Ben Harper writes some groundbreaking songs but makes some truly mediocre albums. When he gets it right — as with There Will Be a Light, his 2004 gospel album with Blind Boys of Alabama, as well as with 1994’s Welcome to the Cruel World and 1995’s Fight for Your Mind — there are few mainstream artist who stay as true to their roots or execute their particular vision as successfully as Harper. Throughout his career, his albums have lacked cohesion, but there are always a few gems that anchor each disc. So, although Lifeline is right in Harper’s soulful, gospel-blues comfort zone, its mediocrity is symptomatic of a new condition. There isn’t a bad song on the record, but neither is there a particularly good one.
Regardless of dorm-room nostalgia, archetypal songs like “Burn One Down,” “Gold to Me,” “The Woman in You” and “Ground on Down” have aged well. Harper’s voice is always emotionally refreshing, and his slide guitar, while it can be at times overwhelming, is an impressive weapon. But on Lifeline, the problem is that aside from the gorgeous soulful drive of “Put It One Me” and the heartfelt blues of “Needed You Tonight” and “Heart of Matters,” the album highlights neither the ecstatic, emotional range in Harper’s voice, nor his dexterous guitar fireworks. Instead, the band gathered in a Paris studio and, in just seven days, recorded a diluted version of the Stones’ Beggars Banquet, only without the bravado.
The derivative funk of “In the Colors” and the dark blues of opener “Fight Outta You” do a disservice to Harper’s reputation. They are fine songs, but instead of synchronizing his influences into something exciting and personal, Harper and the band, on much of Lifeline, unabashedly wear their ’60s blues-rock influences on their sleeves. They have a frontman capable of taking them in impressive directions, but Lifeline merely retraces the steps the band has already taken. Harper is an impressive performer, and it’s a shame the stagnancy of Lifeline comes at the sacrifice of his own creative pursuits.