ROY HARPER Counter Culture (Science Friction)

Presenting, according to the cover sticker, “25 Classic Roy Harper songs (Cherry picked according to his mood in April 2005)”, this double CD anthology is an exquisite key into the British folk-rock iconoclast’s recorded output.

The opener, the title track of his 1966 debut album, “Sophisticated Beggar”, recorded with John Renbourne (sic) already in tow, never loses contact with structure for all its shades of raga and acid-folk. “You Don’t Need Money” is a quirkily camp Kinksian observation of bohemian youth slumming it around Europe – kind of “Sunny Afternoon” meets “Withnail & I” – and one of very few tracks here to employ percussive embellishment; it’s testament to the rhythmic certainty of Harper’s writing and playing that its absence is scarcely noted. It hardly registers that the bitterly corrosive, possibly self-directed “I Hate The White Man” is a live recording until the shell-shocked applause at its close. Arguably Harper at his most Dylanesque, he summons so much hoarse, hollering rage from just strings and wood.

One of few familiar moments here on account of This Mortal Coil’s ethereal cover, “Another Day” begins in a parochial Hovis ad vision of England (“The kettle’s on, the sun has gone, another day/She offers me Tibetan tea on a flower tray”) before heading for more mysterious territory, illuminated by the half-light of David Bedford’s string orchestrations. Distant turbulence and turmoil hum through Harper’s strumming during the acoustic prog of “The Same Old Rock”, which degenerates into a John Martyn-esque tapestry of reverb.

I was slightly taken aback by the man’s cheek when he opted to perform his own composition, ”When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease”, at last year’s “Talking Bob Dylan Blues” tribute concert, but heard again it’s the highlight of this collection. It speaks volumes about a passing, perhaps passed, even then, England even before The Grimethorpe Colliery Band strike up.

The sardonic “One Of Those Days In England (Pts 2-10)” chimes with Pink Floyd’s contemporaneous work – Harper appeared on their “Wish You Were Here” album – featuring some very “Animals”-esque slashing vitriol. It’s about as punk as Harper gets, if you can class a 20-minute suite as being close to punk in any regard. The plastic synth brass imitation at the close initially seems to be a jarring misstep, but perhaps it’s entirely appropriate in a song that seemingly hankers after a long-vanished impersonation of reality.

Kate Bush brings a dark lustre to “You” that outpaces even her own burgeoning art of the time. “Miles Remains” is a long, luxuriant tribute to the late trumpeter that floats Harper’s acoustic guitar in a halo of echoes. “I Wanna Be In Love” finds him at his most tender and transparent, Ric Sanders’ violin providing a pungent counterpoint, until the whole is subsumed by what sounds like tribal chanting and drumming.

The composite cover photograph features two reflected halves of the artist, pictured 35 years apart. The headphones may have changed, but the shirt, the hair and the beard remain constant, if a little greyer where appropriate. It’s a powerful image that’s also an accurate summation of the album’s contents. Impervious to fashion, Roy Harper’s complex, literate and sincere songs have changed not a jot over the near-40 year period documented here, they’ve just matured. I can’t think of another artist who could select a similarly singular, consistent and coherent anthology from such a long career.