Tracklisting: What Kind of World / Bad for Me / Light of Day / Happy Most of the Time / Keep Me / Pretty Baby / Here In The Deadlights / Met Your Match / Thru the Ceiling / No One Else But You / Come On / On the Fence
I’ve been misreading Brendan Benson’s songs for years, all those glorious pop nuggets infused with coos of “baby” aren’t about love at all…well not romantic boy-meets-girl / girl-breaks-boy’s-heart / boy-finds-hotter-girl and delivers triumphant “nah nah nah” to his ex, love anyway (check out Jeffrey Lewis’ ‘Another Girl’ for a definitive depiction of that scenario in song) . Dig deeper and it becomes clear that BB’s been writing about a love / hate relationship with his own music career all along.
‘What Kind Of World’, Benson’s fifth studio album, is his first on his own label Readymade Records (a situation forced on him because “It’s the usual story with me – every album that I’ve recorded, I’ve had to find a new label… I just keep getting dropped!”) and the most explicit to explore his uncertainty about his own talent. “So looked over so underrated / every move proves to be ill fated” he moans on opener ‘What Kind Of World’ as he describes a reality where he’s “been so low and so downhearted” and “all my efforts just ricochet / off these walls that are put in my way”. It’s a desperate wail and hardly a surprise considering Benson’s friend and song writing partner in The Raconteurs (Jack White, for those with their head in the sand for the past four years) continues to gather plaudits and rack up sales whilst BB languishes in singer songwriter obscurity.
This lack of confidence drives the lyrical content throughout the record as Benson reflects on his own position in the current musical landscape “and last time I checked I was about the size of an insect / and with just about as much to say” (Happy Most Of The Time) and the destructive addiction to his musical mistress (a strumpet who gives with one hand and mercilessly takes with the other) “keep me busy baby / keep me satisfied / keep me coming back for more/ keep me on a leash/ keep me close at heart/ keep me face down on the floor/ keep me guessing baby / keep me in the dark/ keep me under lock and key/keep me anyway you want/ just don’t ever set me free” (Keep Me).
You have to feel sorry for BB, a songwriter with a prodigious talent rightly mentioned in the same breath as Cat Stevens, Matthew Sweet and Paul McCartney, who not only suffers from living in the shadow of his more newsworthy band mate but who also gets trampled on by countless identikit troubadours unleashed in a stampede of mediocrity by blinkered corporations on an almost weekly basis. You’d forgive him if he gave up…or at least delivered an album a little more lacklustre than his previous (near faultless) output ….but no, despite the lyrical agonising, ‘What Kind Of World’ is another collection of unabashed classics. A record that firmly sets up Benson as an artist with few contemporary peers who will one day see his cult status redefined as iconic.
Musically, we’re in familiar territory. When you’re one of the world’s premier exponents of gloriously fuzzy power-pop there’s little point in going all avant-jazz on our arses and Benson has stuck to the formula with gusto. Having taken over all production duties for the first time it’s clear that ‘What Kind Of World’ is Benson’s most personal record to date. He’s also learnt from the experience of ‘My Old, Familiar Friend’ and has continued to steer clear of the sheen that plagued ‘The Alternative To Love’ in favour of a return to the more ragged sonics of his classic sophomore album ‘Lapalco’. Tracks like ‘Light and Day’ and ‘Met Your Match’ (“any clown can make her laugh…not any clown knows how to make a good thing last”) come closest to replicating ‘Lapalco’s’ glories but there are plenty of new twists to the BB formula to make ‘What Kind Of World’ a triumph on its own terms. The opening call of “crank it up for me!” on the grungy ‘Here In The Deadlights’ heralds a song draped in glorious organ and a huge chorus whilst ‘Pretty Baby’ is all foreboding drums and a melancholy sweep of strings. ‘Thru The Ceiling’ is Benson at his darkest – a Foo Fighters-esque rocker that culminates in a continuously soaring ending whilst ‘No One Else But You’ kicks off in untypically country-fried style before warping into a great lost Wings track (by way of The Bluetones). The album ends on another country note (a product of Benson’s new Nashville home no doubt) with the wonderful ‘On The Fence’ a song readymade to be the theme tune to a US sitcom about an ageing lothario (call David Duchovny now).
So here we are at the end of album number five – an album that Benson fears is “gonna be the death of me” (‘Bad For Me’) – but fear not, with ‘What Kind Of World’ BB has hit the kind of stride so few artists bogged down by major deals get to achieve. For all the disappointments of lacklustre sales and label apathy that have littered Benson’s career so far it is these very obstacles that have allowed him to continue to create albums of such sublime genius and made him music’s best kept secret for the past 15 years. Here’s to keeping him hidden a little while longer….