I used not to bother with tunes. In my Bob Dylan phase – and everyone must have one – earthy, grainy, tobacco-stained vocals were the thing, and melody something of an embarrassment. A distraction. Plastic, and frivolous. Things got a bit out of hand: while my peers bought ironic S Club, I got Tortoise and Mogwai, probably the least ironic music you could care to name.
Well, things have changed. I’ll appreciate a drone like the next man, 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 his shockingly under-promoted last record, Lapalco, in St Albans in 2002 – and, unconducive circumstances notwithstanding, felt a strange Technicolor rebirth. His music does this. It touches the parts Tortoise can’t, opens up a glorious, cartoonish world of its own, and lets you revel 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-songwriter platitudes. Not only was it, effectively, a full-band power pop record,albeit with Benson himself on every instrument, but its lyrics shunned the standard introspection. Yes, it was lovelorn and self-questioning -what good music isn’t? – but it was never self-absorbed.
With Pleasure Seeker, he made a knowing blow against that sense of foregone conclusion that defines Damien Rice and his kind: “When I drink, I feel mellow, and when I think, I’m Saul Bellow”. In Good to Me, he made a new loser’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, what does a happy-go-lucky scamp do when he reaches 30. Spit it Out, the first track here and the first single, takes off where Lapalco left off -gloriously chugging – but with more urgency: “It looks like the time, is running out now”. Later, in the swooping minor-key Biggest Fan, is he “a mannish boy, or a boyish man?”
The arrangements have developed with the lyrics. Alternative is still layered with scratchy but solid guitars, and synths to lift them, but overall, it’s rather more acoustic and mid-tempo than Benson has been before. Timed to the platonic 43 minutes, it has the feel of those classic early ’70s songwriter albums: Tapestry, After The Goldrush, Blood On The Tracks. The spotlight this directs to Benson’s voice is one of the simple delights here. Always a joy, it has mellowed and refined with age. Still beautifully clear, and able to leap like anything, there is a new depth, an understated human vulnerability.
In all this, the tunes remain, and are as dangerously addictive as ever. Attempts to make classically proportioned albums so often turn to nostalgia, grave-robbing even, but here the arrangements only obscure Benson’s profound originality. No one else writes melodies like these.
Time will tell if it’s quite up to Lapalco. The Pledge is something of a lapse – on an intimate record, it’s rather glaringly rowdy, and, with its enormous reverb and timpani, perhaps too Phil Spectorish for our modern times. But this certainly matches his first record, One Mississippi, another lost classic. And in any case, Benson’s work at its best, which includes much of The Alternative To Love, makes you wonder not 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.