It’s been seven years since Brendan Benson last released a solo album, but it’s like he’s never been away. While it’s true that there’s a dose of experimentation on Dear Life, at its heart is always what’s made him one of the most likeable, if underrated artists – some perfectly constructed power pop.
There’s sometimes a case of ‘always the bridesmaid, never the bride’ with Benson. Next year will mark 25 years since the release of his debut album One Mississippi, and Lapalco didn’t bring the commercial breakthrough which that album seemed to promise. Since then, he’s been more well known for his role in Jack White‘s side project The Raconteurs, which is a shame as Benson is a more than capable songwriter in his own right.
The most noticeable thing about Dear Life is that it’s almost bursting with positivity. Richest Man is an ode to his contentment as a family man – with lines like “I’ve got two beautiful babies and one hell of woman as my wife”, it would be easy to be sappy sentimental nonsense in anyone else’s hands. Benson though imbues the song with such a bolt of energy it’s impossible not to be swept away by it all.
Although most of the songs on Dear Life are straightforward guitar pop, there are a few surprises to be found on the album. Good To Be Alive is full of strange sonic glitches and effects, auto-tuned vocals and off-kilter key changes, while the chorus of opening I Can If You want Me To almost bursts out of the speaker with so much ferocity, you’d swear it was a Raconteurs song.
Given the feel-good nature of much of the record, the album’s title track has a strangely downbeat tone, despite the shiny horn section augmenting the song. It’s a tale of several characters being beaten down and hanging on for “dear life”, such as a traumatised soldier who’s split up with his family and is now “off the grid, fighting a different war”.
Mostly though, Dear Life is an upbeat tonic for these trying times: Benson is an expert at writing a catchy chorus, as Baby’s Eyes, I Quit and Half A Boy (which appears here three years after first being released as a single) all demonstrate. The glorious racket of Freak Out sounds almost cathartic, and the mix of glitchy sound effects and classic rock melodies on the closing Who’s Gonna Love You is reminiscent of James Mercer‘s work with Broken Bells.
The one qualm is really the brevity of the record – after waiting for seven years, Dear Life clocks in at just over 30 minutes, and some of the tracks, especially in the album’s second half, seem more like half-formed sketches (I’m In Love stops suddenly after 90 seconds, just as it seems it’s about to burst into life).
Yet, while there’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings as much as Metarie did all those years ago, Dear Life is a reminder that Brendan Benson remains a terrific songwriter. He’s still too much of a quirky proposition to make it big, but Dear Life is a great big burst of sunshine in an all too dark world.