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“There's something about this record,” Benson says, describing his Third Man Records debut album DEAR LIFE. “A friend of mine called it ‘life-affirming.’ I thought it was a joke at first but then realized, well, it’s about life and death for sure. I don’t know if that’s positive or optimistic or whatever, but that's what's going on with me.”
Brendan Benson finds himself in an enviable spot as he enters the third decade of a remarkably creative, consistently idiosyncratic career – an accomplished frontman, musician, songwriter, producer, band member, husband, and dad. Benson’s seventh solo album, and first new LP in almost seven years, DEAR LIFE is this consummate polymath’s most inventive and upbeat work thus far, an 11-track song cycle about life, love, family, fatherhood, and the pure joy of making music. Produced and almost entirely performed by Benson at his own Readymade Studio in Nashville, the album sees the Michigan-born, Nashville-based artist – and co-founder, with Jack White, of The Raconteurs – reveling in a more modernist approach than ever before, fueled by a heady brew of cannabis, hip-hop, and a newly discovered interest in software drum programming. The result is an untapped playfulness that elevates expertly crafted songs like the opener, “I Can If You Want Me To,” and the first single, “Good To Be Alive,” with voluble arrangements, elastic grooves, and incandescent power. Imbued with revitalized ambition and confidence, DEAR LIFE is Brendan Benson at his very best.
Beginning with his now-classic 1996 major label debut, ONE MISSISSIPPI – recently reissued by Third Man in its first-ever vinyl pressing – and its masterful 2002 follow-up, LAPALCO, Benson has always infused classic craftsmanship with contemporary invention. Along with his own critically acclaimed canon, Benson is of course co-founder – with Jack White, Jack Lawrence, and Patrick Keeler – of The Raconteurs. The band first convened in 2006, winning worldwide acclaim, GRAMMY® Award nominations, and a chart-topping smash single in “Steady As She Goes,” with their now-classic debut album, BROKEN BOY SOLDIERS. The Raconteurs returned two short years later with 2008’s CONSOLERS OF THE LONELY. Like its predecessor, the LP proved a popular and critical phenomenon, earning the GRAMMY® Award for “Best Engineered Non-Classical Album” as well as a nomination as “Best Rock Album.”
DEAR LIFE came about gradually and organically after a self-imposed creative hiatus rooted in the happy arrival of his son and later, a daughter. Having spent the majority of his adult life on the road, Benson decided he’d prefer to stay home for a change and just be a dad.
“I just couldn’t bear the thought of leaving,” he says. “I was so enamored with my kids, I just sort of lost touch with my career. I just didn’t want to go back to work.”
Instead, Benson directed his musical energies elsewhere and fast proved an in-demand producer/engineer (Robyn Hitchcock, Young The Giant, Trapper Schoepp, The Greenhornes) and collaborative songwriter, with a CV that includes partnerships with Jake Bugg, Iain Archer (Snow Patrol), and The Kooks’ Luke Pritchard, among others. Despite his successes, after a few years in this voluntary wilderness, Benson surprised himself in 2017 by writing and recording the rocker “Half A Boy (And Half A Man).”
“It just felt really good,” he says. “I felt like I was like born again. Seriously, it was almost a religious experience, like, oh my God, I love making music. I had forgotten. That’s how it started. It was kind of a spark. A re-ignition.”
Though Benson wasn’t “consciously making a record,” the songs kept coming. Rather than overthink every move, he simply let go. He got stoned in his studio and worked on music simply because it made him happy.
“I started dreaming again,” Benson says. “Getting lost in the music and just letting it take me. Not being so serious, not thinking I was some sort of great writer or producer. I just enjoyed myself. I wasn’t racking my brain on how to from one chord to the next. I wasn’t trying to come up with the best lyrics ever. I was just having fun.”
Benson worked with surprising intensity, most days skipping meals until long after dark. Determined to keep moving forward, he opted to play virtually every instrument on his own. Though a skilled drummer in his own right, Benson began working with Pro Tools and an array of other drum programming software.
“I’m a self-taught only child,” he says. “I don’t need to go elsewhere for things. If I want drums, I think, OK, how do I create drums? Well, I’ve got to play them or I’ve got to program them. It’s all happening really quickly. I don’t have time to wait for some guy to come over and learn the song, all that crap.”
Working with programming helped free Benson from his previous creative habits, opening up uncharted paths and new approaches towards making his music.
“I may never go back to playing the drums,” Benson says. “No, that’s not true, but it is a lot of fun. It’s a different discipline entirely. On the drum kit, you feel it out, see what feels good or whatever. But with software drums, you’re constructing beats with your hands, with a mouse, and with a keyboard. It’s really weird. So of course you do things that you wouldn’t do on a drum kit. It’s like, wow, I never would have played that beat. And then the options are limitless. Everything is right at your fingertips.”
Unrestrained by anything other than his own imagination, Benson drew less from genre and more from his own instincts, melding jangle and crunch, hook and riff, pomp and subtlety, into something original and his own. Sonic motivation came from a range of unexpected sources, spanning hip-hop icons like Vince Staples and Kendrick Lamar to the top 40 hits his kids played around the house.
“I’m always kind of battling cynicism,” he adds, “being a cynic about music. So listening to what my kids listen to, it helps me break down the barriers in myself. The kids put on Justin Bieber and my knee jerk reaction is to turn it off. But I don’t. I’m forced to listen in and by God, I start liking it. I find something good in it and then that maybe pops up in my music.”
With the aesthetic doors blown open, Benson saw his songs grow more complex, multi-tiered, and rhapsodic. From the future funk-fueled “I Can If You Want Me To,” through “Good To Be Alive” and the madcap “Freak Out,” to the elegiac finale, “Who’s Gonna Love You,” his long vaunted knack for pure pop craftsmanship is paired with a progressive, left-of-center dynamism unlike anything in his body of work.
While tracks like “Dear Life” and the ecstatic “Richest Man Alive” are undeniably animated and even joyful, Benson is quick to note that there’s more going on than necessarily meets the ear. The buoyant melodies and irrepressible hooks are tinted with self-doubt and instinctive irony, their affirmative messages colored by encroaching middle age and the songwriter’s own mortality.
“I’m just singing about me,” Benson says. “I’m almost 50 and it’s freaking me out so that’s kind of coming up in the songs.”
After almost two years, DEAR LIFE was finally approaching completion. Benson signed on with new management and began talking with labels, ready at last to return to the fray. And then Jack called.
“My wife was like, OK, off you go,” he says. “Seriously, I was stoked. That band is fun. I get to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band, that’s my dream. And I get to share it all with a bunch of guys that I love and respect.”
After more than a decade, The Raconteurs finally returned to action in 2019 with their critically acclaimed, chart-topping third LP, HELP US STRANGER, highlighted in part by a couple of songs Benson had been kicking around for his own LP, “Only Child” and “Somedays (I Don’t Feel Like Trying).” The Raconteurs’ epic 2019 world tour proved equally successful, playing to ecstatic sold-out houses from Nashville to New Zealand and all points in-between. Still buzzing with big rock energy, Benson returned home and recorded two more for DEAR LIFE: the short, sharp “I’m In Love” and the persistent slacker anthem, “I Quit.”
“The Raconteurs helped me get off my ass and get back into the swing of things,” Benson says. “I got to exercise that muscle again. I came home really excited just to get back to my thing. Whereas before, I think I was a little overwhelmed. It’s daunting to make a record and get a band together and tour an album. But now I’m really ready. It’s not so daunting.”
With that in mind, Benson is currently considering how to bring DEAR LIFE to life. Having made a record he can take unabashed pride in, he is determined to continue defying expectations and resisting easy pigeonholes. DEAR LIFE marks a milestone on what has already been an atypical artistic journey as well as a bold signpost towards future triumphs, a showcase for Benson’s matchless gifts for wry introspection, insightful wordplay, and powerhouse melody, once again affirming his place among the finest singer-songwriters of this or any era.
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