Roy Harper: Man & Myth

His first studio album in 13 years sees the legend back at his best.

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Since the turn of the century, Roy Harper has written poems and prose, but didn’t feel the urge to record. Then younger fans like Jonathan Wilson and near-peers like Jimmy Page and Dave Gilmour re-stoked his confidence. “Suddenly I was off to the races again,” he says.

Refusing to leave the crease, he runs with the same eccentric, grumpy-vulnerable gait as he did on 70s classics Stormcock and HQ. Man & Myth is an odd-shaped thing of both beauty and belligerence, on which he sets the world to rights, raging about society’s misapprehensions, while still falling in inappropriate love like a man, ‘without a grey hair on my head’.

Five acoustic-based folk songs (one, Cloud Cuckooland, could be described as rock, with Pete Townshend guesting on wailing guitars) are followed by a 23-minute climax of proggy ambition, albeit with gentle, wafting instrumentation, which never loses sight of the fact that Harper is, at heart, a singer-songwriter. Made up of two segued tracks, Heaven Is Here and The Exile, the music surges, drifts and retreats across ‘foreign shores’ and within a man, ‘alienated, to my boots’. They use imagery from Greek mythology (Jason and his Argonauts feature) and culminate in a ghostly refrain: ‘Life is eternal, death is eternal’. Just as you think that his Zen declaration on all matters and the music has ended, the man re-enters, alone with just his guitar, and strums out one more verse about a hopeful glimpse of love.

Harper isn’t going through the motions here or, indeed, on any of the tracks. Man & Myth is a genuine, motivated comeback, with a heart-on-sleeve approach and the artist’s uncompromising political opinions. The overarching mood is one of melancholy, and it’s as soulful and sad as Nick Drake or John Martyn. Peer through the mists, however, and a complex richness of emotional hues is revealed.

With Jonathan Wilson as Harper’s main cohort, the opening songs move from ironic, drunken sing-a-long The Enemy, which digs at the hierarchies of so-called civilisation, to the tender, reflective ballads Time Is Temporary and The Stranger, which are underscored by Fiona Brice’s string arrangements.

Best of these first few tracks is January Man, where the septuagenarian catches himself, ‘keeping winter at bay’ by swooning over a much younger woman, before drawing back. He sighs, ‘I lost control of my emotions in the oceans of your eyes… oh I do apologise…’ and his cracking, weathered voice exudes levels of candour and grandeur rarely witnessed.

This quiet storm sees the man living up to his myth. Have a cigar.

Chris Roberts

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.