Lifemask finds Harper pulled in two different directions after Stormcock, which I assume is his best album; on the one hand retreating from its ambitious format on side A but doubling down on side B. The arrangements are also more elaborate, on the whole, than on that previous record.
“Highway Blues” is a track I know well from his live album but the version here is actually better, because it’s not drowning in delay. I think it’s probably one of his stronger songs from this period; it’s both reasonably accessible and the lyrics are never boring. It’s still a little over-done in the arrangement at the end; would love to hear a stripped-down version.
“All Ireland” is one of my favourite Harper songs, despite its brevity (maybe because of it). Rarely has Harper captured something topical so well and with so few words. It’s seemingly outside of his comfort zone but it’s very nearly perfect. I might prefer the live version, which is a little more passionate, but this is still great.
“Little Lady” is a decent Harper song, typical of his output in terms of his subjective perspective, which always leads to thought-provoking lyrics. The problem for me with this one is the production, which is kind of out-of-control in its psychedelic vibe. I do often prefer the live version of Harper, when he (usually) abandons his studio goofiness.
“Bank of the Dead” is a relatively brief, immediate tune that belies its (semi?) serious intent, but which is once again hijacked by Harper’s need to be weird in the studio.
“South Africa” is another song I already knew, and one of my favourites of his so far (as I have yet to hear more than a few of his albums). But, as with the other two tracks here that I’ve heard live versions of, I feel like Harper (or Peter Jenner, or both) gives in to his worst instincts when creating the finished product. It’s less ridiculous on “South Africa” than on some of the other tracks here, and I get that this is partially what makes Roy Harper Roy Harper, but it’s annoying to hear a song you like drowning in superfluous noises and echoes and such.
And then there’s “The Lord’s Prayer,” a side-long track inspired by a near-death experience, which opens with a typically provocative but goofy poem, which lasts for nearly four minutes, which is fucking ridiculously trying if I do say so myself. That colours my impression of the whole piece (as it would) and makes it feel more like performance art than music, at least to start. The piece itself is actually pretty good, featuring much of what makes Harper great, including lyrics which are unique enough to make you think (whether or not they mean anything) and his classic vocal modulation (Harper is rarely a boring singer) but it is very, very long and, like basically everything else here, over-arranged and over-produced.
I love Stormcock and so was really looking forward to this. But I think that Harper is really his own worst enemy in the studio on this record. The material is (mostly) very good but nearly everything is “trippy” as if that somehow gives his already pretty good lyrics more weight. Harper is also a pretty good guitar player but you barely get that here (the most prominent fills are played by Jimmy Page).
6/10 because, though it’s a bit of a dud, it’s an interesting dud. Also, “All Ireland” is on it.