Highlights: The Enemy, Time Is Temporary, January Man, Heaven Is Here
You learn as you go along. Previously to this album, my exposure to Roy Harper (who is righteous, according to Luke Haines’ Twitter) had been limited to the leading vocal on Pink Floyd’s “Have A Cigar” (anything but a popular view, but I’ve always loved the song) and, ironically, that song title from Led Zeppelin’s third LP. “Hats Off To Roy Harper”. Well, judging by this album as well as the acclaimed, hurriedly-listened-to Stormcock – hats off indeed.
I’ll admit that these days the idea of a lengthy track seems rather scary. Right away I think of something plodding and pretentious. And admittedly Roy Harper’s track list for Man and Myth looked alarming. One song in particular, “Heaven Is Here”, is longer than 15 minutes. And in folk music, you pretty much have to be Dylan in his prime to pull that off.
But the very first song, “The Enemy”, tells you that you are in good hands. The guitar sounds masterful, just as that first hookline. The song never sounds monotonous, Roy is always there to spice things up a bit with a witty guitar line or a rockier section. Next up is “Time Is Temporary”, which opens like a classic ballad off an early Leonard Cohen album. This song as well as “The Stranger” have that slightly dark, autumnal vibe of “Master Song”. Never a bad thing. “Cloud Cuckooland” opens non-typically, with a saxophone, and I just love the anthemic diversity that was probably needed at this point. The centrepiece is of course “Heaven Is Here”, and let's get this straight: there isn't one part in it that sounds remotely expendable. Even the instrumental passages, with orchestration or with Roy gently fingerpicking the acoustic guitar, sound compelling and flow into the singing sections with convincing ease.
Granted, Roy’s voice has gotten more fragile with years, but that never really bothered me. Some notes might be eluded, but he sounds completely in charge all the way through. His guitar playing is great, his songwriting is arguably as strong as ever. In a word – the whole thing is masterful. If I have to thank Joanna Newsom for that, I will. But mostly let's be grateful to Roy Harper himself for keeping it up and, in the process, recording one of the best albums of 2013.