Album Review: What Kind of World by Brendan Benson
Fairly Good, Based on 9 Critics
New Musical Express (NME) - 80 Based on rating 4/5
As Jack White goes all Jools Holland boogie-woogie on his solo album, for his Raconteurs compadre Brendan Benson it’s back to the day job – knocking out glistening radio rock records with more hooks than a Saw movie prop department. This fifth solo album breaks no new ground – besides piano epic ‘Bad For Me’ making a case for him as the 21st-century Harry Nilsson and the brooding, string-flecked prowler ‘Pretty Baby’ obviously being written as an audition for a Twilight soundtrack. But it reasserts Benson’s standing as one of America’s greatest songwriters, even if his adherence to straight-ahead meat-and-potatoes FM bar-room rock, unfiddled with since 2002’s pop masterpiece ‘Lapalco’, shows all the imagination of a Sonisphere line-up.
Brendan Benson has always had an uncanny knack for first-person pop. Since his glimmering 1996 debut One Mississippi and its blisteringly catchy 2002 follow-up Lapalco, Benson's lyrical output has been widely focused around his repeated looks inward. The words "me," "mine," "my," and "I" come up a lot. More neurotically autobiographical and self-analyzing than narcissistic, the singer's hyper-personal inspection of himself and his struggles with the world are reflective of the meticulous magnifying glass he applies to his winding power pop compositions.
It's no mere coincidence that Brendan Benson recorded his seventh album, What Kind of World, at a studio called Welcome To 1979. Both the moniker and the all-analog mission of that recording spot seem to dovetail nicely with Benson's aesthetic agenda. That's not to say that the album doesn't sound like it's ready for 2012, simply that Benson taps into a spirit that harkens back to the power-pop heyday of the late '70s.
The gods of power pop are perennially unkind. Sure, it's never been music's most commercially viable subgenre, but I suspect an element of cosmic doom, too. Bios of the guys who've devoted entire careers to multi-tracked harmonies, anthemic choruses, and Pete Townshend windmills all seem to take the shape of rocketships cocked for the moon but fatefully, eternally stalled on the launch pad.
Being a Raconteur alongside Jack White hasn't propelled Brendan Benson into pop's upper echelons, and his fifth solo album drips with disappointment. "Well here it goes again, another losing streak," he sings over the gorgeous 70s AOR piano melody of Bad for Me, "I guess I'm on a roll." It's about relationships, but it's hard not to wonder if he's also reflecting on his inability to turn the endless goodwill towards him into actual success. What Kind of World won't cause the goodwill to dry up, but it never reaches the heights of 2002's Lapalco, still Benson's high-water mark.
Brendan Benson may be better known as the other guy in Jack White’s the Raconteurs, but since 1996 he’s been releasing his own string of great pop records. His first two albums, 1996’s One Mississippi and 2002’s Lapalco, are pure pop gems start to finish and established—quietly—Benson as one of the top makers of timeless, super melodic power-pop. He’s one of those songwriters that seems to toss off melodies effortlessly, and yet he’s never quite caught on as much as he could.
On his first four albums, Brendan Benson proved that he could balance his classicist approach to composition with a thoroughly modern point of view that was always guarded in its optimism. Unfortunately, Benson loses that balance on What Kind of World, toppling headlong into some dire, dreary singer-songwriter territory. It simply isn’t a style that suits Benson, and the bulk of the album is mired in awkwardly written lyrics and labored melodies that never quite resolve into actual hooks.
It’s no secret Brendan Benson plays in the shadow of Jack White within The Raconteurs, so it’s unfortunate timing that his on/off bandmate is releasing his highly anticipated debut solo album (ahem, Blunderbuss) the same week as he unleashes his fifth and latest LP, What Kind of World. But through ’70s power pop and honey-soaked, AM radio vocals, Benson offers a worthy argument to view him as a peer rather than a protégé to Mr. White.
Thoroughly enjoyable fifth album from the sometime Raconteur. Si Hawkins 2012 Unkind souls may consider Brendan Benson to be the Andrew Ridgeley of The Raconteurs, the quasi-supergroup he co-founded with Jack White back in 2005; but this is unfair and fairly inaccurate given that there were four of them. The old colleagues’ paths continue to converge though, as Benson’s fifth solo album emerges in the wake of White's much-trumpeted debut, albeit in a lower-key fashion.