[28 April 2009]
I remember in my first year of university, I went to a Ben Lee concert held at the uni bar. Having seen Lee perform previously, I knew his live performances could be a little patchy or too quirky but the singer seemed to be in good spirits, as did the crowd. But what was so memorable about that night was when Lee came back on stage for encore and sang “We’re All In This Together” and gradually the whole room broke into this joyful sing-along, everyone chanting the title line over and over in growing, swelling voices. There was something beautiful and uplifting about it. At least for three and a half minutes, I felt connected to every person in that room, some people I vaguely recognised and others I had never met. It was comforting to be reminded, through the medium of a pop song, that we are in fact all in this life together, this life of happiness and heartache, fun and disappointment. It was one of those moments that make you feel grateful to be alive at that very second and grateful for all the wonderful, stupid little things that make up your life.
And that moment, that sing-along, that feeling, seems to represent where Lee has wanted to be ever since he penned his fifth and perhaps best album Awake Is The New Sleep, a disc of melancholy tunes (following his break up with Danes) but also tunes full of hope. It seems that these days Lee is all about trying to create that moment of magical resonance, only possible via a pop song. The transition of the Aussie singer-songwriter from a precocious teen in a punk band to the eternally optimistic pop singer he presents himself as today is a pretty amazing one. Indeed Lee’s seventh studio album The Rebirth of Venus is perhaps his most upbeat of all, full of sing-alongs and hand claps and rife with sunny hooks. However, like most Lee affairs, the album lacks consistency and many will find his celebration of femininity, with its blurring of gender lines, too much.
Opening track “What’s So Bad (About Feeling Good)” tries to make the case for embarrassing dancing and the simple things in life over jaunty, choppy guitar riffs and shimmery percussion. The song closes in a hedonistic chant of “No guilt/ all pleasure”, which stands as a pretty good metaphor for the whole album. Enjoying the pop gems here feels a bit like enjoying a guilty pleasure, but a pleasure all the same. “Surrender” follows suit with its lyrics about giving in to life and love. Sung in a call/response vocal, the song builds into a joyful climax which has Lee singing with abandon. Third track “Sing” preaches the power of the pop song with the sunny chorus line of “When you’re singing along/ nothing is wrong” and the almost inevitable “la-la-la-la-la” refrain halfway through. While nothing close to a revelation, all these tracks shimmer with infectious hooks and reveal Lee’s innate melodic gift.
Lead single “I Love Pop Music” continues the trend of placing pop songs on pedestals. The track also introduces shades of politics with Lee interweaving spoken word verses about the price of oil, renewable energy and the food crisis with the hand clapping, finger clicking chorus which has Australian singer-songwriter Missy Higgins on back up vocals. Truthfully this mish-mash of pop and politics is a little hard to swallow, for the political verses seem overly pretentious while the chorus seems embarrassingly earnest. However, “I Love Pop Music” seems like a bonafide hit when compared to the other overtly political track on the album, “Wake Up”. Over a gentle pulsating riff, Lee begins by singing the praises of America, sharing the story of the time he made out with two girls at once in Washington before delivering lines such as, “America, the world needs a foreign policy of compassion” and the chorus line of, “Feel your broken heart beating like a drum”. The song is a painfully, preachy affair.
If one thought the shiny pop of the first half of the album induced too many cringe-worthy moments, then the latter half, which sees Lee getting in touch with his feminine side, may seem downright ridiculous to some. But is seems these days Lee is too carefree to, well… care. His ode to sisterhood is most evident in “I’m a Woman Too” where he quotes Helen Reddy singing, “I’m a woman/ Hear me roar/ If you’ve ever had to fight/ You’re a sister of mine.” On “Yoko Ono”, Lee jumps to the defence of the rock pariah and paints her as a misunderstood cultural leader of endless wisdom. Lee looks backs to his childhood in “Boy With a Barbie” describing his experience playing with plastic, busty dolls as “beautiful and true” before delivering the line, “we don’t have to play by their rules.” Lee skips to adolescence in “Bad Poetry”, which is a gushy ode to the freefalling stages of new love . Half the time one doesn’t know if he’s being goofy or sincere. Some may hope for the former but it seems modern-day Lee is being as earnest as ever.
Many are going to be quick to dismiss The Rebirth of Venus but underneath the shameless pop is something heartfelt. This is true of the lovely “Rise Up” where Lee asks, “What’s in your heart/ What’s in your head/ It’s one or the other these days/ The quick or the dead.” And it seems that these days, Lee has decided to follow his heart. And while this may not equate to cool, there is something infectious and unwaveringly hopeful about it.