Ben Watt Turns Middle-aged Angst Into Gold on 'Storm Damage'
For solo album #4, Ben Watt makes second age musings on mortality and introspection sound beautiful.
31 January 2020
Ben Watt is 57 and has lived quite a life. Nothing on his Wikipedia page however, hints at clairvoyance. If he hasn't got the power of second sight, then how come his fourth solo album, Storm Damage, is released as his hometown of London is battered by some of the worst weather it's seen in years? And let's not mention the metaphorical damage that the UK is suffering in the wake of a changing political landscape and a self-imposed exile from mainland Europe. Granted, he probably didn't need a crystal ball for the last part, but the weather stuff is spooky, right?
When songwriters write about middle age, the results can be, well, challenging. The default setting is a sort of wistful regret, floated over minor chords and soupy strings. The self-indulgence flies off the scale, the album gets panned, and in a fit of panic, they hastily reform the old band and hit the nostalgia circuit really hard. Not Ben Watt. On Storm Damage, he does his fair share of navel-gazing introspection and bleary-eyed recollections. Still, he has the good sense and impeccable taste to couch all that stuff in simple, memorable musical arrangements.
Restraint is the order of the day. Nothing gets in the way of the words. Watt has a plain but earnest voice that never strays too far from his comfort zone, and it's perfect for these songs. He's backed by a cohort of musicians who embellish his music beautifully. You'll hear hints of jazz, electronica, Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake, and a charming dash of what we called trip-hop, sometime in the 1990s. But the star of the show is his lyrics.
There is every chance Watt has turned his mid-life crisis into the best record of his career. He's embraced his mortality and seems pretty OK with it. You don't need to look too hard to find examples – in fact, the first words on the album are "Nineteen years old, life in front of you, Everything on hold." "Balanced on a Wire" – the song those words come from - is imbued with an almost tangible ache. The drums pulse, the bass uncurls slowly, and Watt manages to capture the confusion of early adulthood perfectly. "You saw the moon, is it gone?" he sings. Blink, and you'll miss it. On "Summer Ghosts", he starts off being annoyed that he's having to reach out to others for help, briefly detours to a childhood memory ("My folks were just people with their own shit / And god knows there was enough of it"), and finishes up with a variant of the "I can remember when all this was fields" truism. It shouldn't be good, but it is.
"Retreat to Find" wins the award for the bleakest lyric on the record. "Here, here in my heart, there is a place where I can outface death," he sings. It's weirdly uplifting. Life-affirming even. How the hell did he manage that? Fans of Turin Brakes will enjoy "Figures in the Landscape" and the tension of the verses leading to the release of the chorus. The song almost rocks. I'm not sure who the line "Everyone's a karaoke star" is aimed at, but if the cap fits… It's also the closest thing to a single on the record.
Watt wraps it all up beautifully on the final track, "Festival Song". A simple recollection of being alone at a festival, tipsy from alcohol and smoking his first cigarette in years. Tomorrow afternoon, he'll be back at work, so tonight, he's slipped away. Lost in the music, lost in the crowd, and "Free, free from everything." Nothing else matters but the moment. It's sung sweetly, accompanied by a reverb-heavy piano and a beautifully judged, electronica and viola background. You'll be lucky if you hear a better song in 2020. Really lucky.
Storm Damage is an album by a man in his late 50s, musing on his life, lost love, changing surroundings, and mortality. By some incredible sleight of hand, he's managed to make that unpalatable dish, delicious. On the credits amongst his numerous musical contributions, is the word "Alchemy". I believe it. He's turned his mid-life crisis into gold, and combine that with the clairvoyance, Mr. Watt has a couple of lucrative alternative careers if his muse ever departs him. On the strength of this record, I can't see that happening for quite a while.