His music has always dealt with life’s yin and yang, but the tug between the two has never been stronger than in these 18 new numbers. So much so that when he was sequencing the album, Harper realized that he had to divide the material into two discs, the first filled with personal-sounding songs about love and desire and the spiritual realm, the second an often blistering collection of protest songs. Each disc clocks in at about a half-hour apiece — “which makes the listening experience like hearing two sides of an album, like in the days of vinyl, more than listening to a two-CD set. A lot of classic albums had different moods for each side [Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, on Reprise, is one enduring example], and these songs just divided themselves into different camps naturally.” Indeed, Both Sides of the Gun offers passages of pure beauty — like “Sweet Nothing Serenade,” an uplifting showcase for his inventive approach to the esoteric Weissenborn lap slide guitar — alongside the protest numbers and declarations of truth and purpose like the stomping, questioning “Serve Your Soul,” which uses a stew of electric Telecaster, acoustic six-string, and lap steel to conjure the magic of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.
Raised around his grandparents’ Southern California folk-music store and performance center, surrounded by the likes of bluesman Brownie McGhee and slide-guitar expert David Lindley (who makes a cameo on tambura, a bowed Turkish instrument, on “Better Way”), Harper has always been a musical eclectic. His style draws from practically every roots school, from folk to blues to rock to reggae to soul to spirituals to jazz. Being a singer-songwriter whose primary instrument is lap-slide guitar makes him even harder to categorize.
Nonetheless, he’s found an audience that continues to grow. His strongest fan base has been in the jam realm, where tastes tend to be broad. His previous studio album with his Innocent Criminals band, 2003’s uplifting Diamonds on the Inside (Virgin), gave him additional radio exposure and cemented his reputation as a pop visionary who defies easy tags and cynicism. And he was introduced to the hardcore roots audience through his 2004 collaboration with old-time gospel singers the Blind Boys of Alabama, There Will Be a Light (Virgin).
“My time with the Blind Boys was a musical awakening. I learned a lot about singing and about being flexible within my own abilities. I would have made a much different album this time if it wasn’t for working with them. I went into the studio expecting to cut just two songs and we made an entire album. That really taught me to trust my instincts for spontaneity and improvisation. When I went in to cut Both Sides of the Gun, about half the songs were already written and arranged and half were finished and played for the first time when we recorded them. That was a new experience for me. And the Blind Boys also taught me to not be afraid to let a bunch of songs exist in the same vein and create one distinct mood. I’d always thought I needed to have a variety of moods and styles on my records, but the Blind Boys have their own way of doing things and their own style and mood for everything they do. I had to adjust my own playing and ideas to their style when we recorded together, and the results were really soulful and fulfilling. Without that experience, I don’t think I would have been confident enough to create two groups of songs that each had their own distinct mood for Both Sides of the Gun.”