You could call the latest album from the former wunderkind a "concept album", but that's meeting it more than halfway.
Ben Lee's new album Deeper Into Dream starts with a spoken-word track that seems to establish just how literally we'll be venturing "into dream" over the next 45 minutes. Various voices, mostly Australian, reveal the content of their dreams, both mundane and fantastical. And on the title track that follows, Lee offers up a kind of mission statement: "Have you ever woken from a dream and convinced yourself you remember it / In the morning?" Setting an album up like this, as if to say, "Hey, guys, we're heading into concept album territory here", is a great little technique -- see Janelle Monae's stunning treatment of The ArchAndroid of yesteryear -- but only if you actually follow through with a concept album.
Instead, what we get is an album that sounds unsure how fully it should commit itself to its concept. The opening dream confessional is repeated twice more, and there are songs with titles like "When the Light Goes Out" and "I Want My Mind Back", but Lee never quite follows through on that initial pact he makes with the listener. Instead of wild dreamscapes, fantasies, nightmares, or even aspirations (which, of course, is a different sort of dream), Deeper Into Dream mostly deals in straightforward indie pop-rock shorthand. Everything's inflected with the little smidgens of goofiness that Ben Lee's been mining for years, but the vibe of this album is more sleepy than dreamy.
The dreamiest Lee gets is on "Lean Into It", a thrumming, woozy song with piano and strings buried beneath waves of ambiance. The soundscape is beautiful, but Lee squanders it by aimlessly stumbling his way through lots of vague quasi-epiphanies like "Love is big and what is love? / Is it from above or from below?" Lee doesn't have a big, impressive voice, and it's probably best-suited to quiet, simple songs like this, but when it's coupled with weak lyrics, the results are enervating. He does dreamy better on the late-album track "I Want My Mind Back", where the oft-repeated chorus "I want my mind back" becomes a dogged mantra against a surreal backdrop, but it's a shame he doesn't get to that place more often.
Everywhere else, Lee is up to his old tricks. The songs that hew closest to his bread and butter -- catchy, offbeat, slight -- are his best, even if they do even less to service the notion that Deeper Into Dream has a great deal of cohesive structure. The one-two punch of "Indian Myna" and "Pointless Beauty" amps up the energy considerably, the former with sheer fun, the latter with a soaring, anthemic Coldplay-lite chorus. Neither of them have anything to do with dreams, really, although I guess you could argue that "Indian Myna" is an attempt to relate the disjointed, nonsensical narrative of a dream.
The second half of the album is more of the same by-the-numbers indie pop, with the exception of "I Want My Mind Back", and you've heard every one of these songs before; there's the song that could be on the Garden State soundtrack, the smoldering break-up song, the Killers song. And then there's "Dirty", the closer, which explains that "It's not above, what we call love; / It's in the mud, so get your hands dirty". Set side-by-side with another dream confessional, it's supposed to be the conclusion reached at the end of a journey, but there's no sense that the conclusion means anything, or that you've even taken a journey. Like the rest of Deeper Into Dream, it sounds nice enough in soft focus, but falls apart a bit when you really pay attention.