Ben Kweller has always sounded like the kind of guy who could never feel truly unhappy. From his commercial breakthrough on 2004’s On My Way, his music has resounded with a sense of cheery optimism that feels redolent in the essence of the American dream, forever hopefully looking forward to the future. Kweller’s songs were pocket-sized pop nuggets of blissful, backroom joy, and even at his most pensive, it only ever felt like a brief ripple on the surface of a far larger pool of wide-smiled boyish charm.
But after splitting with former label ATO Records, his new album Go Fly A Kite feels like a return to the quaint, small-scale releases that Kweller spent his formative years producing. He might have moved on from the homemade limited edition EPs, but that DIY ethic runs through the heart of the record, and Go Fly A Kite, appropriately, feels like an album born in a clean sky of rediscovered freedoms.
The record bursts into existence with storming opener Mean To Me, which sounds like early Ash and touts a party line of carefree living. Kweller might be in his 30s now, but he doesn’t sound it. Mean To Me’s blistering guitar solo is every bit the stuff of a younger mind and body, possessed with a physical energy that carries the track right the way to its horn-injected outro. Jealous Girl follows along the same lines and probably boasts the best hooks on the album; that classic Kweller melodicism, that sense of pleasant niceties that are so uniquely his. Likewise, Gossip sounds like the kind of tuneful piano ditty custom-built to be used on a future iPad advert.
But while so much of Go Fly A Kite is suffused with a hyperactive build-up of youthful energy, it’s often not put to the best of uses, with tracks like Time Will Save The Day feeling distinctly scrappy, rough-edged and dog-eared. It pushes Kweller across a garage rock beat and out of his comfort zone – lost amidst the flailing, scratchy guitar riffs, his vocals sound stretched, struggling to keep up with a pace that is bristling to leave him behind. Like so much of the album, Time Will Save The Day, ironically, feels incredibly rushed.
And therein lies the chief woe of Go Fly A Kite – it’s ill at ease in its settings, like it’s been born prematurely into an existence where so much of it still only feels half-made; like a collection of demos dressed up as an album-proper. It whistles by in under 40 minutes and leaves little to remember it by, almost as if it’s rushing to finish, all too knowing of its own failings. Full Circle stumbles forward on a bed of happy-clappy piano riffs – charming, as Kweller always is – but feeling inelegant and cheaply made. There’s a knocked-up-in-his-bedroom vibe to the record, and while it might play into the affected youthful innocence of the whole affair, it takes a heavy toll on the overall quality of the tracks. There’s a longing for the more defined skill that created past Kweller pop gems like Hospital Bed and Living Life that here feels so lacking.
Indeed, it’s only really on The Rainbow that the album feels more invested with time and affection; slower and statelier, it gives Kweller’s talent room to breathe, to really show itself in the aspect it was designed to flourish in. Kweller’s talent as a pop-rock songwriter is plainly evident, but despite the consistent cheeriness that’s offered across Go Fly A Kite, it never manages to shake off the feeling of being merely an appetiser for a main course that never materialises.