Well, the press release sounds good. It starts: “Ben Arthur is not your average folk-rock-country-blues singer” and then says that he was executive produced by Shania Twain‘s Mike Shipley. Which is, I suppose, one way to slip that darned folk-rock-country-blues singer tag.
Arthur has, it says, a rich musical tradition. He is as ‘exotic’ as David Bowie, and has opened for Bruce Hornsby. Arthur is, then, a major figure on our contemporary scene. Or, at least, he is going to be. Maybe we should call him an emerging talent. He’s from New York – which should help him, if it hasn’t so far – and has travelled widely in Europe, which means he is sensitive. All the stars are in his favour.
So what have we here? Basically, some pretty high-sheen pop. Not necessarily catchy, but the kind of stuff that suits any mood, and any car stereo. The folk-country-rock-blues thing probably comes from his first, self-released, couple of records – here, they’ve gone for ‘crunchy’ and ‘anthemic’ with lots of big guitars and compressed vocals. Also, some of the electronic bleeps which were to be found, if you should care to look, on Shania’s hit That Don’t Impress Me Much.
Overall, the goal seems to be some kind of sick neutered Wallflowers, albeit without Jacob Dylan’s family voice, and with worse lyrics. Arthur says he prefers lush images: “I don’t like songs that are too specific, too literal”. Quite how he got from there to “all this dry humping/ must lead to something” is a bit of a mystery, but never mind. But we could look past that – pop lyrics aren’t meant to be graceful.
His downfall is writing a song about post-9/11 New York called Broken Hearted Smile: he’d walk a thousand miles to see it, apparently. We’re meant to think it’s an anthem – and we’re also meant to think that Arthur has found, in a single homely metaphor, an end to terror. There are a couple short chords before the chorus to let you know it’s coming. We should all get ready to sing along.
It’s not that this is a bad record; it won’t break your mind. It’s more Arthur’s unwitting absurdity, and the odd sad moment of thinking it could actually have been good, had his obvious talent not been corrupted by cynicism. This is a very cynical record. You can feel them writing their list: love songs for girls? Yes. Songs about sex for the frat house? Yes. Songs about 9/11 for the serious of mind? Yes. FM-friendly production for us all? Yes indeed. In live photos, he has an ill-advised earring. On the back of his CD is a photo of him, carefully turning that ear the other way.