If you had met Arthur Lee Harper in 1967, around the time he was writing his debut album, it probably wouldn’t have been too long before he introduced himself as a poet. That might seem strange, considering he did not actually publish poems. Instead, he played guitar and wrote songs—not verse set to music, but rhyming lyrics with verses and choruses, delicate melodies and Romantic imagery. He was then what we might call today a singer-songwriter, but the ’60s being the ’60s, Harper and his friends Stephen John Kalinich and Mark Lindsey Buckingham had grander ambitions than simply strumming pop tunes or providing entertainment. Poetry was an aspiration, a true calling, a means of peeling away the veneer of society and exposing some hard human truths both beautiful and revolting.
At that time anyone could claim the mantle of poet, even if it no longer brought with it the perks enjoyed by Dylan or Ginsberg. In fact, before Harper signed with Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Records, he was living at the YMCA and sharing bags of potatoes with his friends. Dreams and Images, released under his first name to almost no fanfare, did not do much to change those conditions, and this reissue does not present it as a lost or unheralded classic, along the lines of Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time or Patrick Haggerty’s Lavender Country. Instead, it’s another piece of the LHI puzzle that Light in the Attic has been putting together for a few years now.
In that regard it’s a revealing artifact of that scene as well as a gentle statement of purpose by a struggling poet. According to the liner notes, Hazlewood assigned an arranger named Don Randi to beef up Harper’s songs, and to everyone’s credit, the additions are both odd and nonintrusive, lush and minimal: a bed of strings on opener “Blue Museum”, an oboe riff on “Children Once Were You”, what sounds like a clavier on “Open Up the Door”. Such flourishes bolster the dreamlike quality of Harper’s songs, as though Randi intended them to be slightly surreal illustrations in an imagined chapbook.
Dreams and Images reveals a poet very exacting in his craft, even if he seems to be still finding his voice. Harper’s lyrics are occasionally ponderous or oblique, but just as often he can be unnervingly direct (“I don’t know why/ There’re tears in my eyes”) or darkly whimsical (“You look like a human chair”). On the other hand, some of these songs can’t survive outside the context in which they were written. “Walking down the street is a sunshine soldier,” he sings on “Sunshine Soldier”. “A child walks by and hands him a flower/ And that’s how love is begun.” Still, there is something radical about Harper’s naivety. His words never howl. Instead, they whisper.
Reinforcing that impression are Harper’s high, expressive voice and his precise guitar playing. The former lends a thoughtfulness to his delicate melodies and the latter frames every line as a soul-searching query. He was self-taught in both regards, favoring idiosyncratic phrasings and odd tunings that other musicians might find nonsensical. But the music lends some heft to the words and portrays a gentle personality behind the songs. Even when he’s singing about love and beauty and sunshine soldiers and maidens fair, he never sounds like just another folkie. It’s enough to make you wonder what he might have accomplished if he had pursued his muse further, but after Dreams and Images and one follow-up, he quit the music business, started a family, and took a 9-to-5 designing rocket engines. It’s an odd fate for any poet, especially one who made a virtue of having his head in the clouds.
from Album Reviews – Pitchfork http://ift.tt/1AOxAe5