What Kind of World
I know it’s not a contest between the two most recognizable dudes from The Raconteurs, but when they both release solo records the same week, it’s hard not to compare. While Jack White’s Blunderbuss is sucking up most of the accolades, it should be noted here that based on the amount of fun delivered and sheer number of killer pop hooks, Brendan Benson’s new record wins, hands down.
Benson sounds a bit like Cake frontman John McCrea on the opening title cut, employing a similar speak-singing, robotic monotone as he intones “I’m just trying to get something started / Been so low and so downhearted / Haven’t seen my friends in a while / And I never laugh and hardly ever smile.” The song works its way to a melodic chorus and becomes a basher by its conclusion, coming off as an unlikely anthem for depressives of all stripes. “I take it too hard,” Benson tells himself.
By contrast, Benson emotes much more melodically on the early ’70s Rundgren-like, piano-backed “Bad for Me” and displays a continuing mastery of dynamics within the pop form that seemed to come already fully developed even on his solo debut, 1996’s One Mississippi. It’s one of several tunes here about addiction to bad relationships. “She sucks my soul” he sings. “Well maybe she’s bad for me / But I don’t care to see / Because what I want and what I need / Are the same to me.”
As great as those two opening tunes are though, they’re only the tip of the iceberg of what awaits on the rest of the disc. “The Light of Day” sports one of the record’s most killer hooks on the chorus and some of Benson’s darkest lyrics. “The curse of endless life and eternal wakefulness / Close your eyes and I’ll be there / On the other side of every breath / You’ll never know my love / That sweet release of death,” he sings.
The bouncy “Happy Most of the Time” takes a somewhat more positive outlook. “I know I’ve been walking around here like a zombie / But I’d say I’m happy most of the time, dear,” he sings. But even here Benson isn’t above a little self-deprecation. “Last time I checked / I was about the size of an insect / And with just about as much to say.” While Benson may make it all sound effortless, the snappy pop hooks are just as hard won as the emotions. The song is all shifting tempos and crunchy guitars until he decides to break it down to bass and drums for a verse just for fun.
Promising newcomer Young Hines (a signee to Benson’s new label) joins Benson on another ode to bad relationship addiction, “Keep Me.” “Keep me guessing baby / Keep me in the dark / Keep me under lock and key / Keep me anywhere you want / Just don’t ever set me free,” Benson sings.
Country chanteuse Ashley Monroe joins the proceedings for the slightly creepy, downbeat “Pretty Baby.” Against melancholy string sounds, organ and burbling synths, they sing about one of those bad relationships that now appears to have run its course. “I’ve got a hole in my heart pretty baby / Got a hole in my heart can’t you see / I should have known pretty baby / That you were gonna be the end of me.”
The cleverly-titled “Here in the Deadlights” brings back the shifting tempos, crunchy guitars and McCrea-like vocal delivery. It delivers the first half of a great one-two punch with the following “Met Your Match.” Perhaps one of Benson’s best pop confections ever, “Match” finds Benson keening at the top of his vocal range against a springy beat and old school new wave synths. “And it’s killing you / You’re starting to get attached / So what are you gonna do? / Now you’ve met your match.”
Benson downshifts to musically darker territory again on “Thru the Ceiling,” co-written with producer Jay Joyce, a master of moodiness in his own right on records by Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris, Tim Finn and scores of others. “I’m weightless / I’m shapeless / I’m invisible,” Benson sings.
“No One Else But You” is the kind of track that shouldn’t work. That it kinda does is more testimony to Benson’s talent. It’s a Beatles-meets-countrypolitan ballad in the verses that becomes a horn-laden stomper in the chorus.
Elsewhere, Benson puts the power back in power pop on “Come On,” a harmony-enhanced gem. And Monroe returns for the country-tinged, honky-tonk piano-soaked “On the Fence.” Benson shows he’s learned a thing or two from his recent move to Nashville as he sings about his commitment phobia (perhaps one of the reasons those relationships he sings about earlier went south?). “Never been a fighter or a lover / Never thought that either made much sense / And I can’t decide on this way or the other / So I live my life just sitting on this fence,” Benson sings.
While one might fear for Benson’s mental health as a result of all the “soul-sucking” relationships he sings about on this record, his songcraft and musical talent have never shone more brightly. You guys can keep your Blunderbuss. I think I’ll spin this one again.
Brendan Benson: brendanbenson.com