Remember 2001, when the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? commandeered everything that was even remotely related to the music world? Grammies, charts, even tours were dominated by this single entity, compiled by T-Bone Burnett for the Coen Brothers’ fantastic (and equally acclaimed) film. A mere three years later, Burnett struck again with a similar soundtrack for Cold Mountain, equally rooted in classic gospel and country.
If it’s hard for you to remember O Brother‘s glory days, it may be equally straining to recall those of Ben Harper. Yes, if you look back almost a decade, Harper was churning out albums like Fight For Your Mind that spat political rhetoric over worldly beats and grungy slide guitar riffs as dense as his ‘fro. But alas, those days are over. In what could be a spiritual revival or mere playground jealousy, Harper has compiled an album wholly grounded in classic gospel.
There Will Be A Light stems from an apparently unexpected collaboration between him and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Both parties are undeniably talented — the Blind Boys being some of the most soulful individuals on the planet and Harper being an equally reputable slide-guitar player — their collaboration falls flat, without much room for forgiveness.
The album is split between Harper’s gospel originals and classic spirituals, but none are particularly moving. To those familiar with Harper’s repertoire, this should come as no surprise; the religious tunes on There Will Be A Light‘s predecessor, Diamonds on the Inside, were dismal. The songs here are no different: Lyrics are simple spiritual expression, and the music rarely transcends bare-bones accompaniment. The album’s highlight is its only instrumental, a guitar piece that echoes moments from the introduction to Fight For Your Mind‘s “God Fearing Man.” You know, one of the old religious Ben Harper songs — the ones that don’t suck.
Even fans of the recent Americana uprising will be disappointed in There Will Be A Light. The Blind Boys, although a welcome presence in what seems to be Harper’s show, are underused and underappreciated. Harper’s concept is noble, and his talent still apparent, but the rushed atmosphere of the album and its general simplicity are its downfall.