Brendan Benson may be better known as the other guy in Jack White’s the Raconteurs, but since 1996 he’s been releasing his own string of great pop records. His first two albums, 1996’s One Mississippi and 2002’s Lapalco, are pure pop gems start to finish and established — quietly — Benson as one of the top makers of timeless, super melodic power-pop. He’s one of those songwriters that seems to toss off melodies effortlessly, and yet he’s never quite caught on as much as he could. He’s hopped from label to label, and released other solid records like 2009’s My Old, Familiar Friend even though his power-pop formula hasn’t changed much. But now he’s found a new home on his new record What Kind of World.
That new home is both personal — he’s married and had a child since his last record — and professional. Benson has established his own label, Readymade, to release his new record, and you can hear the zeal of freedom in the best parts of this record. He hasn’t reinvented himself, really, since this is still down-the-middle pop, but he is trying to stretch his palate at times here, and sonically and melodically it’s a purely sweet listen, a record rarely with a dull moment. Though, even though it’s never dull sonically, lyrically Benson feels a bit stilted here, harkening back to the sad, self-deprecating romantic of past albums, even as that persona becomes less and less convincing.
But despite the attempts to recapture old tropes, he still immerses us in his earworm riffs for plenty of What Kind of World. The opening title track starts unassumingly, with steady drums and bare organ, but when the spacious bass comes in under the moody guitar hook, we’re set up for a shimmering chorus that elevates the song nicely. The bouncy, staccato riffs on “Happy Most of the Time” break up the gliding pop of the first half of the record perfectly, while “Keep Me” and “Pretty Baby” follow with a more sinister tension, built on restrained percussion and palm-muted guitars. They offer a shadowy valley before the album’s biggest highlight, the punky, driving rock tune “Here in the Deadlights”, which marries Benson’s surgical pop sensibilities with energetic force, recalling his high-water mark album, Lapalco.
He does occasionally step out onto new pop limbs, particularly on “Bad For Me” and closer “On the Fence”. Both songs trade the timeless, crunching power-pop for something closer to mid-’70s AM-gold, and both are interesting textural shifts on the record. “Bad For Me” is an unabashed power ballad, with Benson crooning over hard-struck piano before the bad fills out behind him on towering choruses. “On the Fence” is bit more subdued and dusty, a muted road tune about a guy that can’t quite hit the road but can’t quite stay home either.
If these two songs offer new sonic possibilities for Benson, though, they also point out the lyrical limitations of the record. Benson was once a genuinely lovelorn songsmith, a guy that could pine after the girl on record and still sound charming. But now, as he appears to have found love in his real life, he seems unable to shift his perspective in song. So when he ham-handedly sings “I haven’t got a chance, I’m too weak, / She sucks my soul” at the start of “Bad For Me”, it feels clunky and rings hollow. Relationships don’t really fare well on this record, even when they work, as on the weirdly adversarial “Met Your Match”, an otherwise solid, catchy pop tune that finds the subject hemming and hawing over falling for a girl that is, for reasons unexplained, “rare and oh so hard to find”.
That he has “met [his] match” implies that he has given something — good or bad — up in the bargain, and the song, like much of the record, invites comparisons to the flimsy Beta Male/Quirky Girl dynamic of films like (500) Days of Summer. The subjects, mostly male, of these songs are both constantly in search of love and so often thwarted by evasive or unattainable women. Around this, the men seem willing to admit their own flaws, but their honestly feels less like confession and more like romanticism. Closer “On the Fence” points this out most clearly, where Benson sings about how a man’s “never been the type to settle down / never had the nerve to ramble on”. Sure, he’s channeling a version of the loner archetype here, but it’s hard to tell why Benson is still so held up on that image. It’s well-worn, and he does little more with it here, so in the end pop songs that are sonically distinct get rendered lyrically dated and, in some cases, anonymous.
The romantic air around the self-defeating, love-seeking male feels out of place for a songwriter of Benson’s talent and maturity, and as a result What Kind of World falls well short of being the kind of great pop record it could be. Like Benson’s subjects, it never settles down confidently nor rambles fruitfully. To hear it is to enjoy it, without a doubt, and there are a handful of songs that will embed themselves deeply in your head. But Benson has, at his best, always been able to offer more, to make his brand of power-pop more lasting. Sadly, too much of What Kind of World will fade as quickly as the ringing piano does at the album’s end.