[23 September 2010]
Jay Bennett is primarily known for his work in Wilco from Being There through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Unfortunately, his departure from the group not only wasn’t amicable, it was also documented in the film I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Bennett’s legacy remains too closely tied to that film, as well as his later litigation, rather than to his artistic output in Wilco, with Edward Burch, or as a solo artist. In May 2009, Bennett passed away at age 45 while working on a new album. The Jay Bennett Foundation has made the record available, on CD and for free download. The album, Kicking at the Perfumed Air, has some nice moments, but its unfinished nature doesn’t hide.
Bennett worked at his arranging, engineering, and producing (engineering control seems to have been the primary reason for his exit from Wilco), and its hard to listen to the new album without wondering what it would have sounded like if it had been completed, with the recordings’ textures fully developed. That quality, given the posthumous nature of the release, adds an extra tinge of melancholy to an album that was already working the sadness pretty well. While that atmosphere might be fitting, it also develops an uneven feeling (neither consistently lush nor stripped-down), with finished cuts next to demos (or, if not demos, at least rough tracks).
The songs work beyond their completeness. The album has strange bookends, though. The opener is a cover of the Boomtown Rats’ “Diamond Smiles”. The spare sound works wonderfully here, except in the closing moments, and Bennett nails the vocals, revealing his interpretive skills and letting his tone match the content of the lyrics (in which Diamond has not the cheeriest of departures).
The closer, “Beer”, counts up 14 beers in slow number that turns a silly opening into a more serious track, touching on self-destructive behavior and fame. However, the song never really strikes home, remaining flip (or, at best, a character study of someone being flip) and using a pun on the word “crash” as an exit. The song doesn’t exactly work as a light-hearted closure to a serious number, and it doesn’t quite making an engaging final statement. Given Bennett’s accidental overdose on a painkiller, the song even feels a little troubling at times, leaving the album hanging not on an artistically indeterminate moment, but on an unclear one.
The song does answer “Second Last Call”, one of the album’s bouncier romps that echoes something like, well, Uncle Tupelo and suffers from excessive piano outro music. “M Plates” creates more of a slow pummel, with the arrangement a little fuller, but still offering plenty of empty space as Bennett softly delivers his lyrics. “Cartoon Physics” offers a melodic approach to a breakup, the brightness almost making you believe the false consolation of “love never left any tracks to be traced”.
Tracks like these add up to a solid album, but not a stellar one. Even accepting the unfinished nature of the disc doesn’t make up for the fact that it just doesn’t stick enough. Bennett does a fine job throughout, but Kicking at the Perfumed Air lacks a little something. It’s possible more work on it would have provided more rewards, and it’s a shame we can’t know.