Ben Harper's newest release, Childhood Home, is a love letter to post-adolescent musing that is just a bit more than the sum of its parts. I mean that in the sense that some of the songs are laden with lyrics and instrumentals that reach transcendent meanings, while others fit the record as a whole unit and little more, but the overall diversity of its content elevates everything and lends the record to infinite interpretations. A good one to spin while your driving Mom out to dinner this Sunday…
This folksy collaboration with mother, Ellen Harper (herself an accomplished musician) includes ten gentle folk tracks focused on family, love and childhood memories. This really is a great gift for Mothers Day because the mother-son duo really did something special with this record. In addition to contributing to some beautiful choruses, four of the ten tracks were written by Ellen, who adds a lot of depth and charm to the whole affair. That being said, Harper’s Childhood Home has no interest in base sentimentality and includes some emotionally brutal tracks – particularly those written by Ellen who brings a certain polemical touch to songs with modern lyrics that sound like classic 60’s folk.
The album starts off with the Americana-style “House is a Home,” which is an artfully crafted commentary that juxtaposes the intrinsic value and fleetingness of the past. Next is my the feel-good “City of Dreams,” which is a touching tune layered with the soulful crooning of the mother-son duo about how the places we build in our minds tend to outlive their basis in reality. Complete with some of the best guitar work on the record it contains an irresistibly poignant story about land development with modern lyrics like “landmarks lost to parking lots / in the city I called home / looking back I see what used to be / now freeways crawl through suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see / and the city lives only in my dreams.” The soft melody and crooning vocals of the mother-son duo on the chorus here will stick with you, as they do on the following track “Born to Love You” before the album briefly inches into the aforementioned filler section with “Heavyhearted World.”
Mind you, tracks like the twangy “Farmer’s Daughter” or upbeat “Memories of Gold” are not bad songs…rather, to use a painting metaphor, they fill in the album appropriately but are more like shading than stand-out songs. Some albums speak to me like a painting where every brush stroke feels equally important - these are the rare records that stay with you forever - whereas others are like a landscape where elements like the sunset or mountain stands out amidst the sea of trees as more powerful. The painting needs the trees but they don't stand out as much as the mountain or sunset.
The album also has two great love songs including “Break Your Heart” and “Learn it All Again Tomorrow.” The former is minimalistic with optimistic notes that ring true but in a very familiar and cavaliere sort of way: “love conquers all its only a matter of time/call me a dreamer I don’t mind.” The final track of the album is a goodie called “Learn it All Again Tomorrow” and for my money is the most genuinely optimistic song on the album. It’s that rare kind of love song that, rather than being based on any relationship, is about how perseverance prepares people for love: “nothing I have you can borrow or steal / yes I think we have a deal.” Considering Harper's last three albums were mired in the ethos of his divorce to Actress Laura Dern it is nice to hear him singing about the hopefulness that comes with surviving daily heartbreak. Sometimes all it takes is a little quality time with Mom to work wonders on a man’s soul.