Hobo With a Grin (1978) ***1/2
Well, Steve's finally put the left & right sides of his brain together and delivered his best album since The Best Years of Our Lives. While it's primarily a heartfelt singer-songwriter album, Harley doesn't entirely ignore the musical side of things, nor does he flake out with too much poorly conceived experimentation. Oh, and it's his first "official" solo album, but we all know that hasn't mattered since the first pair of Cockney Rebel LPs. Anyhow, this is perhaps Harley's most soulful album to date. Previously, Harley's lyrical motivations were shrouded in an enigma encased in a mystery, but the lyrics here aren't terribly difficult to figure out most of the time. One aspect of Harley's persona to be noted is that the man apparently is a sincere Anglican and judging by some of his politically-oriented lyrics here and elsewhere ("Red is a Mean, Mean Colour," remember that one?), he's of at least a mildly conservative temperament. Thus we get the worst track, the misguided funk excursion, "(I Don't Believe God) Is An Anarchist," which could be a specific rant about punk or a more generalized rant against nihilistic youth culture in general. He's sick of revolutions that never improve the general lot anyway, but it's not the lyrics that let me down (the message is fine - Harley's just a conservative in the Edmund Burkean sense, which is to say the most respectable kind), it's the gratingly hamfisted funk. When will Steve get it drilled into his dancing feet that the whitest of white Englishmen have no business shaking down like he's Sly Stone? That track aside, the rest of the album will neither impress nor offend you, musically speaking, though it may bore you if you're not so inclined: it's just standard-issue soft-rock, sometimes lively and rollicking (the lead single "Roll the Dice"), sometimes narcotically soothing ("Riding the Waves (For Virginia Woolf"). The message of the most overtly political tract, "Hot Youth," may seem a recitation of headline doggerel at first, but it's not too hard to figure out with a bit of concentration. Harley's simply observing that politically disaffected youths will always be angry no matter what the specific political situation; if there wasn't a wall in Berlin, there'd be another wall to climb over. The peppy "Amerika the Brave," employs Columbus as a metaphor for how the U.S. is a magnetic dragnet for modern day Europeans like himself. And once you realize that the 'someone' in "Someone's Coming," is the return of Jesus, it all falls into place lyrically. As if a title like "Faith, Hope and Charity," didn't make it clear where Harley's heart was around this time, spiritually speaking. Which must have been a good place, if it produced such warm and soulful ballads as "Living in a Rhapsody," a tune that oozes the essence of Steve at his most tender, emotionally sincere, and moving.
The selection for bonus tracks are quite bafflingly random, as both of the two were nowhere near 1978. "Spaced Out," was an early Cockney Rebel B-side; it's fine but nothing special fiddle-pop and is quite jarringly placed here. "That's My Life in Your Hands," is a live recording of a number that would resurface nearly two decades later (in a studio version) on a '90s Harley comeback album. It's breathlessly rushed folk-pop, but it doesn't come from this era, either - apparently recorded sometime in the '80s when Harley was on his decade-long recording-studio retirement.