After seven albums and 12 years in the game, it can stop being said that Ben Harper is hard to categorize, because at this point, the fact that he always incorporates diverse elements -- from folk to hard rock to funk -- into his music and makes something very much his own is a given. He's practically created a genre. So maybe that's why it's so surprising that Both Sides of the Gun, a two-disc album, has little of that very thing that makes him so unique. Instead, he chooses to show off the range of his musical interests, and ends up with something closer to a compilation than a Ben Harper album. The softer, acoustically based disc is full of pretty love songs and sweetly strummed guitars, and though Harper has done this before and kept his own style intact (in "Two Hands of a Prayer" and "When She Believes," for example), here he comes off sounding a bit boring. He hasn't forgotten himself completely: both "Never Leave Lonely Alone" and "Crying Won't Help You Now" are good songs, sounding strongly of him while also experimenting with other styles (Latin/French and gospel, respectively), but almost all the other tracks could have been pulled off any run-of-the-mill singer/songwriter album from the past ten years. Things improve slightly on the other, louder, disc ("Please Don't Talk About Murder While I'm Eating" is all electric blues, complete with a distorted slide guitar solo, and "Serve Your Soul" is the most Harper-ish of everything, blending folk guitar, pure rock, raw blues, and socially conscious lyrics into one eight-minute masterpiece), but there's still that sampler-record feeling there. "Engraved Invitation" and "Get It Like You Like It" are heavily influenced by the Rolling Stones, "Both Sides of the Gun" alludes to Curtis Mayfield and James Brown, and "Better Way" is practically a tribute (at least musically) to Prince's "7." Harper has always borrowed from other artists, but he's also always added enough of himself to make it not quite so...blatant. It's not that he isn't able to perform such a diverse selection: there are plenty of excellent cuts and most of the album is quite good. Harper is a fantastically talented musician, and he has really developed his voice since Diamonds on the Inside and is unafraid to do things with it, going from a croon to a scream and always sounding great. But why he's copying other people's styles instead of building on his own is both odd and disappointing, because he's always been able to experiment before while also preserving his individuality. If in Both Sides of the Gun Harper is trying to show his audience what a wide variety of music he can cover, he certainly accomplishes that. But if he's trying to create an album that is really about him, he doesn't quite deliver. Ben Harper is in there, don't worry, but he can be a little hard to find.
AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown
Track Listing - Disc 1
Track Listing - Disc 2