Okay, it's not really a Jimmy Cliff album, but I hate the term "Various Artists" and Cliff is certainly the star player here, dominating the soundtrack album of the film in which he played the lead role. I should begin by saying that reggae is not really my thing, although I appreciate the influence it has had on other styles of music (we'll get to the Clash later in the list, who owe a great deal to the genre.)
With that in mind, this album raises an important question about musical analysis: to what extent should we let context influence our perceptions of music? Is the sound itself enough, or should we look to historical, social, and other non-musical elements to explain what we are hearing? Of course, in a certain sense, everything is context. Even a simple chord progression relies on centuries of musical tradition ingrained in our civilization in order for an audience to make sense of it. And all lyrics are about something, usually relating to the world outside the sleeve of the record itself.
Still, different types of music use context in a different way. For example, the first album I reviewed for this series, Before and After Science, largely puts sound over meaning, playing with nonsense lyrics and interesting new textures coaxed from synthesizers, as well as modernistic playing from the instrumentalists that plays with our expectations of what melody and harmony are supposed to be.
The Harder They Come is the exact opposite. There are no complex chord progressions here, no exotic instruments, no sounds you're not likely to have heard before. It's protest music, man. Three chords and the truth. The sound is a vehicle for the meaning, and the meaning is everything.
So what does it mean? Well, first of all, it's the soundtrack of a film in which the hero, played by Cliff, tries to make good, but ultimately is destroyed by crime and corruption, a grim tale lacking in hope or redemption, and reflecting the impoverished and generally unpleasant conditions in Jamaica at the time. In that context, the album is a sad one indeed, for the songs themselves are overflowing with optimism. You can get it if you really want, sings Cliff. The harder they come, the harder they fall. If we work together and hold our heads high, nothing can beat us. Given the fact that there was never any real hope of success to begin with, the album embodies the pathos of oblivious confidence exceeded all realistic expectations.
We are given clues to this cognitive dissonance on other tracks, mostly the ones not sung by Cliff. Songs like Shanty Town and By the Rivers of Babylon give the listener clues that all is not as sunny as Cliff would have you believe. There is sadness behind the singing, a sadness that reemerges as subtext when the title song is reprised at the end of the record.
The Harder They Come is simple and powerful, but it's also very much a product of its time and place, and I can't help but feel that I would find it more meaningful if I had lived through 1970s Jamaica. I kind of doubt it would be worth it, though.