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The Unknown Soldier—7

 

Released: 1980

1) Playing Games  2) I'm in Love With You  3) The Flycatcher  4) You  5) Old Faces  6) Short and Sweet  7) First Thing in the Morning  8) The Unknown Soldier  9) Ten Years Ago  10) True Story

 

The Unknown Solider” came at a transitional phase for Harper in business, his personal life, and in his songwriting.  Following the unexpected success of “Bullinamingvase,” Harper used many of the same musicians and quickly recorded a follow-up album called “Commercial Breaks.”  Despite a similar sound, the album was shelved and not released until 1994 (it is unclear if it was EMI or Roy himself who was responsible for the album being abandoned).  Harper desperately needed royalties from the record though, as he was having major financial troubles and was eventually forced to sell his 20-acre sheep farm to the bank (a crushing blow to a man who was enjoying the working life of a farmer immensely).  To top this all off, Roy Harper began to change his overall sound, shying away from just using his guitar and voice, and entering into a dangerously contemporary direction. 

 

The Unknown Soldier” doesn’t drown in cheesiness, as its follow-up “Work of Heart” would, but it definitely does show warning signs.  Overall though, the album gets by despite Harper’s new found love of technology and features some truly intense and driven moments.  Continuing his tradition of using big name guest stars, Harper is joined by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on a few tracks, and duets with the elegant Kate Bush on another.        

 

Synthesizers act as an intro to the opening “Playing Games,” letting the listener know right off the bat that Harper’s sound is undergoing a major transformation.  The tune itself just seems to try too hard to be a Top 40 hit.  It is catchy, sure, but feels like product; a song released for profit…almost as if Harper was pretending to be happy.  I’m in Love With You” follows a similar pattern.  The song is catchy beyond belief and I am absolutely stunned it wasn’t a hit record, as it is also gorgeous, pleasant, heartwarming and tender.  The problem though, is that there is absolutely no bite on this recording at all—Harper enters into a Kenny Rodgers/Dolly Parton type mold of adult easy listening and abandons the intensity he was known for on his previous records. 

 

Thankfully, that Harper bite returns on the next track though as “The Flycatcher” is a song of remembrance with an old world kind of feel…perhaps Harper’s ode to living on his beloved farm.  His voice is aching, the orchestration is graceful, but with a rusty feel, and the guitar solo is soaring.  Similar in feel, “You” features Kate Bush’s gripping vocals, and was co-written with David Gilmour.  The song is overbearing and makes for a challenging listen, but it builds an atmosphere of bleakness, as Harper and Bush, in contrast to “I’m in Love With You,” seem to actually believe the lyrics of the song and let their voices blend together in desperation. 

 

Another attempt at an atmospheric song, “Old Faces” features delicate synthesizers and an unwavering sound, but it is just too stark and too slow to be anything more than boring.  Conversely, “Short and Sweet” has a more intense style.  Co-written with Gilmour, it begins as a bass-driven, basic, and uninteresting rock song with a very mundane melody…however, on the middle solo, the synthesizers and orchestration find an almost perfect balance marking one of the record’s most melodic moments and carrying this tune into the upper echelons of Harper’s catalog.  Harper has claimed that “First Thing in the Morning” is one of his personal favorites.  Musically, it is much happier sounding than most of the album and has that old 1950s style rock and roll feel.  The synthesizers threaten to ruin it, but Harper’s voice is just so daunting and honest that it makes the song impossible not to sing along with.

 

The title track features only Harper’s voice and acoustic guitar.  It is quiet, restrained, and beautiful, though isn’t really anything more than a typical folk song.  On this album however, it sounds refreshing and heartfelt.  Alternatively, “Ten Years Ago” is far more contemporary.  Unlike on most of the album though, Harper really sounds evil on this track.  A precursor to his sound on “Whatever Happened to Jugula,” this tune is moody, dark, and has a dance beat.  True Story” has a similarly sinister feel.  It deals with William Wallace’s death long before Braveheart brought Wallace’s story to the masses, but does so in a creepy, menacing sound, using Roger Waters inspired vocals.

 

Undoubtedly this album is an unbalanced affair, although Harper considers it one of his best efforts.  There are certainly instances of intrigue, and the mood of the record is overwhelmingly gloomy, but it is impossible not to think that Harper ruined a few of these songs using manufactured 1980s polish.  The Unknown Solider” still is a record worth owning however, and in no way diminishes Harper’s legacy…no, leave that to the next album.

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