Imagine for a moment, that you are Brendan Benson. You’re the crown prince of pop-rock with a clutch of acclaimed solo records to your name. You’re an in-demand producer and songwriter, and if you ever need a few bucks for the holidays, you just call up your superstar buddy Jack White, put the Raconteurs back together and hit the road for a couple of weeks. Pretty neat, eh? But would you then decide to make a solo album that somehow combines Rage Against the Machine, the Raspberries, and LL Cool J? You probably wouldn’t. But Brendan Benson has.
For Dear Life, his first solo album since 2013’s You Were Right, Benson has locked himself away in his home studio with a bizarre selection of records for inspiration and has made an album that is as startling as it is refreshing. Let’s face it, Benson has got that tuneful pop stuff absolutely nailed down, as his previous six albums testify. Very few people have made a better example of alt-pop-rock than Lapalco, his 2002 masterpiece. However, with a little time on his hands, it seems Brendan decided to go off-piste with album number seven. When an artist’s press release is proud to state that their new album was “fueled by a heady brew of cannabis, hip-hop, and a newly discovered interest in software drum programming”, you can hear the alarm bells ringing for miles, but this time, we shouldn’t be too worried.
Benson calls the shots on Dear Life – it’s practically a one-person show, with him playing, programming, and producing almost everything. He seems particularly enamored with his drum machine, especially on “Who’s Gonna Love You”, where he hits “Hip-Hop Drum Pattern #1”, grabs a vocal sample that’s almost from Sam Smith’s “Tonight” and puts together an irresistible groove that’s way better than the sum of the parts. It’s this scattershot approach that gives Dear Life it’s appeal. It would have been very easy for Benson to have just trotted out another album of breezy pop tunes, but he’s chosen to do something different here.
Benson has put one of his most challenging pieces in pole position. Opening track “I Can If You Want to”, sounds a lot like what would happen if Rage Against the Machine were asked to write a song for Gwen Stefani. Noisy guitars and twisted vocal samples collide with pizzicato strings and a typically melodic vocal line. Park your preconceptions here. The eclectic approach continues with “Good to Be Alive”, which begins like a John Legend ballad until the chorus, where it turns into a piece of ’80s synthpop. This tune has so many different ideas and approaches shoehorned into it; it barely survives. Elsewhere, the eclectic approach works better, and on songs like “Half a Boy (Half a Man)”, the sequencers chime perfectly with crunching electric guitars.
Fans of pre-2020 Brendan Benson will appreciate “Richest Man”, which would snuggle nicely up against anything on Lapalco. It’s relentlessly cheery, and despite a lyric in praise of married life, it never gets sickly sweet. “Dear Life” and “I Quit” are superior examples of what Benson does, but share a rather bleak lyrical standpoint, in contrast to much of this album. On these tracks, his joie de vivre is replaced by a dark but tuneful mood. Possibly the “little pink pills” which fuel the aggressive outburst of “Freak Out” are causing mood swings?
Giving an artist free rein to do what they like in their own studio, with plenty of stimulants at their elbow, isn’t always a good thing. At any stage, the whole production could tip queasily into self-indulgence and result in a career-ending double album that not even a quickly released “greatest hits” album will ever put right. Benson has managed to pull it off. There’s enough “classic era” material here to keep the diehards happy and enough semi-experimental stuff to amuse the intelligentsia. It’s a great, modern pop-rock album. I don’t think he’ll need Jack White’s phone number for quite a while.