I used not to bother with tunes. In my Dylan phase – andeveryone must have one – earthy, grainy, tobacco-stained vocals werethething, and melody something of an embarrassment. A distraction.Plastic,and frivolous. Things got a bit out of hand: while my peers boughtironic S Club, I got Tortoise and Mogwai, probablythe least ironic music you could care to name.
Well, things have changed. I’ll appreciate a drone like the nextman,but damn it, it’s The Shins and Tom Petty for me -something to hum, words that reach your brain without conscious effort.The turning point really came with Brendan Benson. I bought hisshockingly under-promoted last record, Lapalco, in St Albans in 2002 -and, unconducive circumstances not withstanding, felt a strangeTechnicolor rebirth. His music does this. It touches the parts Tortoisecan’t, opens up a glorious, cartoonish world of its own, and lets yourevel there. In other words, it does what music is really, deep down,meant to do. Lapalco is easily one of the records of the decade -unbelievably catchy, acutely observed, genuinely uplifting.
Lapalco’s genius was it’s suspicion of the usual singer-songwriterplatitudes. Not only was it, effectively, a full-band powerpop record,albeit with Benson himself on every instrument, but its lyrics shunnedthe standard introspection. Yes, it was lovelorn and self-questioning -what good music isn’t? – but it was never self-absorbed.
With PleasureSeeker, he made a knowing blow against that sense of foregoneconclusionthat defines Damien Rice and his kind: “when I drink, I feelmellow, and when I think, I’m Saul Bellow”. In Good to Me, he made a newloser’s anthem: “I’ve got a 1980 Volvo, I get it started up and I go” -then, with typical wryness, a backing vocal’s “Brmm Brmm”.
That childlike persona could only live so long. The Alternative toLove is no concept album, but it is cohesive: the question is, whatdoesa happy-go-lucky scamp do when he reaches 30. Spit it Out, the firsttrack here and the first single, takes off where Lapalco left off -gloriously chugging – but with more urgency: “It looks like the time,isrunning out now”. Later, in the swooping minor-key Biggest Fan, is he”amannish boy, or a boyish man?”
The arrangements have developed with the lyrics. Alternative isstilllayered with scratchy but solid guitars, and synths to lift them, butoverall, it’s rather more acoustic and mid-tempo than Benson has beenbefore. Timed to the platonic 43 minutes, it has the feel of thoseclassic early seventies songwriter albums: Tapestry, After theGoldrush,Blood On The Tracks. The spotlight this directs to Benson’s voice isoneof the simple delights here. Always a joy, it has mellowed and refinedwith age. Still beautifully clear, and able to leap like anything,thereis a new depth, an understated human vulnerability.
In all this, thetunes remain, and are as dangerously addictive as ever. Attempts tomakeclassically proportioned albums so often turn to nostalgia,grave-robbing even, but here the arrangements only obscure Benson’sprofound originality. No one else writes melodies like these.
Time will tell if it’s quite up to Lapalco. The Pledge is somethingof a lapse – on an intimate record, it’s rather glaringly rowdy, and,with its enormous reverb and timpanis, perhaps too Spectorish for ourmodern times. But this certainly matches his first record, OneMississippi, another lost classic. And in any case, Benson’s work atitsbest, which includes much of The Alternative to Love, makes you wondernot only if he’ll ever better it, but if anything ever could be better.There are only so many ways to say a record is brilliant, and buy it.It’s brilliant. Buy it.