Joe Higgs’ brilliant album is as calm, fluid, and uplifting as Willie Nelson, and as soulful as James Carr on a Jamaican vacation.
Plenty of die hard reggae fans will never have heard of Joe Higgs but he taught the original Wailers some moves and arguably influenced the course of reggae music. This 1972 album originally belonged to Island Records, but Chris Blackwell deemed it not right for UK release and it took three years for him to give the rights to Higgs. Maybe Blackwell was right (his detractors should read Joe Boyd’s fabulous book White Bicycles) because this re-mastered album sounds incredibly good in the cluttered, flashy landscape of 2008. The powerful melodies, bone-dry arrangements, and absence of any guitar solos, synthesized sounds, dubs or studio effects, all create a feel as natural as wood. Clear echoes of gospel, blues, and soul music are audible but nothing is overcooked.
From the opening bars of “Come on Home” this music conveys weariness tinged with bliss. Higgs’ voice sounds ancient and soulful, yet skips lightly across precise rhythms with the grace of a hopscotch champion dancing between the lines. The lyrics are in the realm of the personal and universal while the bass, drums, organ, and guitar are seamlessly squeezed together. Tracks fade rapidly and although the vinyl reissue of the original album clocks in at just over 30 minutes, not a moment is wasted. The CD version adds “Let Us Do Something” and its dub mirror-image “Freedom Journey”, both of which seem a little more like social remedy anthems, yet Higgs carries them effortlessly.
While “Got to Make a Way” and “Wake Up and Live” fall on the side of optimism, truth be told, this whole album balances positive vibrations and heartbreak as few others do. There are many high points but the stunning title track and also “She Was the One” are goose-bump inducing pieces that can stand with the cream of US soul ballads. “There’s a Reward for Me” is also glorious, (referencing the traditional blues of “Motherless Child”). On “Hard Times Don’t Bother Me” Higgs gives a tangible credibility to the line “He’s neither going backward or forward/ He’s a man of stagnation”, and the moment when he sings “Hard times don’t bother me/Life is so glorious” is nothing short of transcendent.
Last year Pressure Sounds unearthed the occasionally brilliant Rockstone: Native’s Adventures with Lee Perry at the Black Ark September 1977 but they have outdone themselves with Life of Contradiction. This consistently stellar album very subtly defines quality in reggae even as it brings into question the usefulness of musical genres.