Brendan Benson returns with his latest solo album, Dear Life, seven years since his last. His career now spans over twenty years and, as a result, he’s certainly allowed the freedom of experimentation we hear across the album’s eleven tracks. It’s optimistic, bordering on feel good, but there are still moments where Benson’s familiar honesty and directness come through.
The opening two tracks initially clash with expectations, but by the time the album’s through, they make perfect sense. I Can If You Want Me To is a high octane opener, bouncing out of the speakers for just over two minutes. In Good To Be Alive programmed drums, synth and auto-tuned vocals are sounds we’d be more used to hearing in modern R&B, but Benson bends them to his will. There’s a push and pull balance he strikes perfectly, with just the right amount of the unexpected dripped in at the right points.
By track three, we’re in more familiar territory. Half A Boy (Half A Man) reasserts guitar as Benson’s primary weapon. In a way we haven’t heard much before, Benson reflects on what appears to be a happy and settled home life. Richest Man Alive is unashamedly upbeat as he gives thanks for his wife and two children. It’s genuine and heartfelt, underpinned by a Commitments style brass section lifting the already celebratory mood. He returns to the upbeat theme in Baby’s Eyes. The line, “I’m right where I belong,” hits the mark in a way a layered metaphor couldn’t, and as ever, Benson’s heart is best worn on his sleeve.
Tracklisting rescues the only moments where Dear Life threatens to run off the rails. Freak Out, I Quit and I’m In Love sit firmly in the album track category. They’re a good listen, enjoyable tracks with catchy chorus hooks, but just don’t live up to the rest of the album’s standard. With the shortest run times on the album, they’re in danger of feeling more like unfinished ideas than fully-fledged songs.
One of the stand out tracks, Evil Eyes, sits between the first two of those weaker tracks. The mood here is a little darker, opening with the line, “What did I ever see in you, what was even there to be seen,” but opens out with one of the album’s best chorus hooks. Throughout is an understated wah-wah guitar line, which instead of overpowering the melodies complements them perfectly.
It’s not all light and love though, Benson swaps autobiography for fiction in Dear Life, charting the stories of several characters going through difficult times. The album’s closer, Who’s Gonna Love You, looks at the what-ifs in Benson’s life and it brings things to a close on a little bit of a downbeat. Driven by a repeating piano melody and layered guitars it feels like a cut from a Raconteurs album and is just one example of where Benson’s different projects have influenced and benefitted each other.
Dear Life is a welcome addition to the Brendan Benson catalogue. It builds on the songwriting promise of his earliest albums and it’s clear that working with Jack White has opened even more doors for an already creative musician. Benson always brought a little bit of the unexpected into his work, whether through structuring or arrangement, and on Dear Life he takes that a step further with just enough experimentation to add intrigue to his evolving sound.