[6 May 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Childhood Home is being released just in advance of Mother’s Day, no doubt a move calculated to sell. The album features Ben Harper, the blues-folk-soul-etc. man of all trades who’s won three Grammys and sold a ton of albums, and his mother, Ellen Harper, described in the press release as “a talented multi-instrumentalist in her own right”. Mother and son singing and playing together on an album featuring six songs he wrote and four that she did.
The songs are about family, childhood, history and memory. It’s a pretty record, with the two singing sweetly together over gentle folk music. Put all of this together, and you’d expect it to be a sentimental affair, aimed at pulling heartstrings while playing into the general emotions of the holiday to generate sales.
The truth is, this is by no means sentimental mush that privileges easy ways of thinking. Instead it consistently explores the pain and struggle involved in families, in childhood, in life. The first song “House Is a Home” has a gorgeous melody that the two voices glide over, glow over, beautifully. Its focus is on home as a quality that exists beyond all of the strife and pain. Even if you’re alone, even if the house is falling apart around you and you can’t put food on the table, even if you’ve run away, even when the neighbors want to run you out of the neighborhood, even when the family has fallen apart: “a house is a home”. It’s a deceptively simple song, and a powerful one that hits on more emotional levels and storylines that you first expect it to.
There are devastating, brutal emotional and physical circumstances behind these songs. “Heavyhearted World” starts, “it’s Christmas morning / in the psych ward.” On “Altar of Love”, Ellen Harper tells a story of high school sweethearts who marry, go through “blood sweat and tears” and then, perhaps predictably, separate, as she raises kids and he does “all of those things a successful man does”… including finding a new, younger woman. The song depicts this story not as exceptional tragedy but as a commonplace occurrence, with women facing the harsh consequences: “another wife and a mother / sacrificed on the altar of love.”
Ellen Harper’s songs are the most brutal, and the most polemical – in that way strongly evoking ‘60s folk traditions, but with songwriting material appropriate for our time. There’s a song from the point of view of a farmer’s daughter who blames Monsanto for destroying farming, robbing them of their livelihood and buying nature. “They own the air we breathe,” she sings.
“City of Dreams” seems like it’s going to be feel-good nostalgia, as Ellen Harper reminisces about her childhood city. But instead it’s a lament for what’s happened to the city. The city of her childhood now only lives in her dreams. They paved over the trees, “from LA to Santa Fe”. That vivid image gives the song an apocalyptic feel, but the apocalypse is here, it is upon us.
Memories abound here; they’re something we rely on in the toughest times; we spin them into “Memories of Gold”, as one of Ben Harper’s songs puts it, when we’re at a crossroads in life. Our childhood homes are constructed in our brains and hearts as much or more than they exist in reality.
How we survive, how we get by, how we get through the darkness is possibly the album’s overriding theme, coming to the forefront on a song like “Learn It All Again Tomorrow”. Ben Harper carries that song like it’s lightweight, but its theme of starting over is complicated indeed, as he sings of his “perpetual redundance” in life. “Turns out what I’m good at doing / is making something out of the ruin,” he sings sharply, which could also be a summary of the album overall. It’s an album of rebirth, but rebirth never comes easy.
Childhood Home draws emotional power from the pairing of mother and son, but listeners hoping for a perfect “Unforgettable” mother-son love-song duet won’t ever quite get one, which is to the album’s credit. The closest is probably “Born to Love You”, though in it Ben Harper is aspiring to something more like a universal love song. It’s inherently melancholy but also spiritual, a song of struggle and aspiration. As beautiful as anything here, it’s a heartbreaker, in a somewhat indefinite way.
The album’s other love song is optimistic, a dreaming song, or maybe not. It captures the twin cynicism and idealism of the album. It’s “Break Your Heart”, where Ellen Harper tenderly voices the come-on, “if you let me / I’d just love to break your heart.”
The final track, “How Could We Not Believe”, is a love song too, of sorts, albeit one with funereal undertones. It embodies the sadness, spirituality and beauty of the album. It’s basic sentiment is that there are things in life so beautiful that they make us believe in something. “So beautiful we had to close our eyes,” they sing. The song is slow and steady in a way that purposely echoes this feeling, reminding us of the beauty inherent in the duo’s patient yet undaunted approach to folk music. In other words, their unwavering approach to the complicated, building blocks of our country and our lives.