No Mercy In This Land is a follow up to 2013’s Get Up!, the collaboration between Ben Harper and blues legend Charlie Musselwhite that won a Grammy for Best Blues Album. It’s often hard to follow up an album that received such critical acclaim, but after five years apart, Musselwhite and Harper’s sophomore attempt is definitely worthy of the inheritance.
From the first few notes, No Mercy In This Land transports you down south to the Mississippi Delta, and the feeling sticks throughout all ten tracks, mostly aided by Musselwhite’s prolific harmonica playing and the rawness of the electric guitar and slide. “When I Go,” the first song on the album, hits hard with that brand of swampy, roots rock energy that’s sort of like a Creedence Clearwater song, but feels more authentic with Musselwhite’s influence behind it. That feeling continues into the more up tempo second song, “Bad Habits,” which introduces one of the albums main themes – vices, whether they are women, or alcohol, or drugs, a classic and familiar motif in blues music.
The third song, “Love and Trust,” has some beautiful harmonies and is a bit more reminiscent of Harper’s solo work. The same goes for the sixth track, “When Love Is Not Enough,” though Musselwhite’s strong blues influence is still evident. Harper’s voice really shines during “When Love Is Not Enough” – personally, I feel he’s at his best when singing soulful, quieter songs that really allow him to showcase the emotion he’s put behind the lyrics he co-wrote. This is where Harper is comfortable and, frankly, why his voice sometimes feels a little forced when wailing on songs like “The Bottle Wins Again.”
Despite that, “The Bottle Wins Again” is definitely a standout, as is “No Mercy In This Land,” which gives listeners the added bonus of hearing Musselwhite lend vocals to it. Listening to the song, it’s understandable why they made it the title track – it’s just good, and it really showcases the best of what the collaboration between the two has to offer. Musselwhite and Harper’s delivery of the song is visceral and it’s no surprise, given that it’s apparently inspired by Musselwhite’s mother’s murder.
“Trust You To Dig My Grave” is a softer song, with the harmonica and Harper’s voice really blending well together. Again, Harper and Musselwhite hit on the theme of dealing with struggle by drinking, with lines like “Woke up this morning, poured a cup of the blues” and “There ain’t no worries you can’t drink away.”
The last song on the album, “Nothing At All,” feels a bit out of place within the context of the nine songs that preceded it. It’s effectively a ballad; the expressive piano playing that drives it is beautiful, but it detracts from the strength of the full album by ending it with what is basically a pop song. Still, Harper’s emotion behind his delivery of lines such as “what if we end just where we begin” made me want to re-listen to the entire album to really dig into what made him sound so pained.
Overall, No Mercy In This Land doesn’t feel as strong as Get Up!, but fans of that previous collaboration won’t find too much to be disappointed by. In some ways the album feels like a Charlie Musselwhite album featuring Ben Harper, but it makes sense given that blues has been his bread and butter for 50 years. It lends credence to No Mercy In This Land as a serious blues record in conjunction with Harper’s more rock-driven sensibilities. Despite the decades spanning in between Musslewhite and Harper’s respective musical beginnings, they mesh well together, with Harper no doubt helping to bring the blues to a whole new generation of fans who might not have ever picked up a Charlie Musselwhite album.