Brendan Benson - What Kind of World
Brendan Benson has been around pleasing his fans for years, be it through his stellar back catalogue, collaborating with The White Stripes or playing with Jack White in The Raconteurs. A perfectionist, he likes to take his time between solo albums and although the gap between 2009's My Old, Familiar Friend and this new release What Kind of World doesn't quite match the six year wait between his debut One Mississippi and follow-up Lapalco, it still is a long time for such a talented songwriter (in his own right) to be away from the spotlight. Can it match up to his career best The Alternative to Love? And will any songs be soundtracking sickly sweet Christmas films?
In his break, Brendan has married, had a child and moved from Detroit to Nashville, resulting in a back-to-basics approach as the album is released on his own label in the States and was recorded entirely in analog at the 'Welcome to 1979' Studios. It was also produced and mixed by Brendan himself and the 70s vibe that runs throughout the record means there's a certain charm to be found in the songs not being crystal clear. Opening with the title track, the very first lines are: "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," could this be his frustration at his unfortunate record of being dropped so many times? Talk of pulling a trigger and taking it too hard seem to suggest so. That the words are sung over a traditional jangly Brendan solo riff and organs just adds to the mystique. He even sings: "So looked over, so under-rated, every move seems to be under-rated."
Things don't get much cheerier on 'Bad For Me', which opens with the lines: "Here it goes again, another losing streak, I guess I'm on a roll." A song for the broken-hearted which even sees Brendan calling himself a wreck, the piano-led song brings to mind a more orchestral Bright Eyes. Following on from this, the next song 'Light Of Day' brings to mind the closest Brendan's solo career has ever come to a hit, the punky Americana of 'Spit It Out', although his vocals are markedly different on this as he bellows out the lines: "Brothers bound by blood" and "I don't care if I ever see the light of day." The change in Brendan's home location may be responsible for the more country-sounding songs, especially in the latter half of the album. 'Happy Most of the Time' is a fun indie-pop song that is impossible not to bob along to as Brendan sings about the world getting smaller, being the size of an insect ("with as much to say") and comparing the way he walks around to that of a zombie. It is three and a half minutes of unshackled Jeffrey Lewis-style joy and although there is some clever guitar work, it is no way near as self-indulgent as The Raconteurs.
'Here In The Deadlights' opens with the spoken word "Crank it up for me," although unfortunately the opening of the song doesn't quite live up to this order. It does eventually morph into a Hold Steady fist-pumping anthem though, especially with the relentless pace that builds up towards the end. This spiky punk sound continues on 'Met Your Match', a song that brings to mind both Elvis Costello and Ben Kweller as Brendan sings about any clown being able to "make her laugh." 'Thru the Ceiling' completes this trio of breakneck songs, coming in at less than three minutes with the Guided by Voices tone complemented by a healthy dose of paranoia and the feeling of being invisible. Brendan sings: "I wish I could sleep like a baby does" and "I wish I could see what you're dreaming of" and it really does feel like a gateway into his mind. Unfortunately, the album finishes with not much of a bang, but a very slow whimper, with two almost-traditional country songs that don't quite feel like they belong to Brendan, especially the closing duet 'On the Fence'. Brendan said that marriage and fatherhood has changed him for the better, and although there are some moments of true class, sadly a couple of the songs sound like filler.