There are but few rules when working in this shadowy business called music criticism. The first one is easy: Make sure to have an unlisted phone number, so Ryan Adams isn't making crank calls to you at 4 a.m. after you slam his next three-disc opus. The second takes a bit more finesse: Unless one is reviewing a Fab Four cover band, never refer to a band or artist as "Beatles-esque." It's a safe bet that anyone working in the rock & roll medium since 1964 has been influenced by the Beatles, and relying on the "Beatles-esque" crutch is a rookie mistake.
Brendan Benson is a power-pop songwriter capable of graceful harmonies and seemingly effortless arrangement, and when writers try to place him in the pop spectrum, many inevitably reach for the B-word. Which used to be understandable -- he was, for instance, in full McCartney mode on a pitch-perfect take on Wings' "Let Me Roll It," from 2003's Metarie EP.
But Benson's music today -- particularly what appears on his latest record, Alternative to Love -- clearly shows that there are more than mop-top hairdos and Beatle boots in this man's closet. Love sounds like Benson has thoroughly ingested 50 years of popular music, including girl groups, Broadway and modern rock. Buzzing chords butt up against quick-change drumbeats as analog synthesizers swoop in and out.
Benson agrees with banning the B-word: "[It's] such a lame thing to say. First of all, [my music] is nothing like the Beatles', and second of all, be careful what you say. The Beatles were an extraordinary band. I just sort of placed them in such high esteem that [the comparison] seemed so far-fetched."
Still, like many of the best songwriters of his generation -- Elliott Smith and Joe Pernice come to mind -- Benson is able to sing beautiful, tuneful songs about sadness, heartbreak and alienation. His chief skill as a performer is how he keeps these tracks from falling into the "woe is me" cocoon that so many other songwriters inhabit. In fact, almost the inverse is true for Benson: He pairs his best pop hooks with the most introspective lyrics.
"It's really just what sounds good to me. I can't really explain why," he says. "I think, 'This is the tempo, this is the key, and I want the chorus to really kind of soar.' It's just one of those things."
Benson's mix of melody and melancholy even shows up in the video for his latest single, "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)." Benson and Co. perform the song's strummy, reverberating chorus while little cartoon figures -- which look suspiciously like the sad-faced dumplings from the Zoloft commercials -- endure romantic rejection, engage in knife-play and commit suicide. The video works as the perfect visual complement to Benson's songs; the cartoony sweetness and instant appeal of his sound belies the pain and pathos in his lyrics.
When asked about this perceived thread in Love, Benson denies having written a theme record of any kind. The songs are just songs, not part of a cohesive whole. "It's stream of consciousness; it's a bunch of fucking nonsense," he contends.
While we'll take Benson at his word on the subject, even he can't deny that love -- both its discovery and its dissolution -- is a major theme on the album. The majority of Alternative's twelve tracks look at romantic trials from almost every angle. "Spit It Out," in which the speaker pleads for conversation and connection, is a worthy rewrite of the Smiths' "Ask." "The Pledge," with its promise of loyalty and fidelity, could become the next wedding march for discerning couples, and the piano-led "Biggest Fan" ends with Benson intoning, "cherchez la femme" as the music fades. This French phrase, usually translated as "look to the woman," might as well be Benson's mantra. Why so happy? Cherchez la femme! Something got you down? Tristement, oui -- cherchez la femme.
"I think the record is so much about relationships because I was in and out of a relationship at the time," he says. "I didn't learn anything -- it's still kind of guesswork for me. I'm still trying to make it work."
The title track gives the clearest picture of Benson's inner workings, both as a musician and as a romantic. "Alternative to Love" starts simply enough, with folksy strumming and unadorned vocals revealing the singer at his most lo-fi. From there, hands clap and guitars solo, and before long plucky basslines and discothèque rhythms turn the strum into a bona-fide groove. Lyrically, the song finds its singer "always in search of/an alternative to love."
While the song stands as a centerpiece on the album -- and a demo version of that same tune was released two years ago -- Benson claims that its inclusion here is a fluke.
"I didn't plan on recording it for this [album]," he explains. "It wasn't meant to be a significant song on the record. In the end, choosing the title, I had a hard time picking a title for the record, and I thought, 'That sounds pretty good.'"
So, let's review. According to Benson, there is no theme to an apparently thematic record. There are no lofty arrangements of sounds and lyrics, and the album's title and standout track are, basically, happy accidents. What gives? Is Brendan Benson a musical genius playing the role of a ho-hum rock & roller?
Probably not. But there is something pleasantly off-putting about the man's ability to create a cohesive work and shrug off its significance. The more time we spend with our noses in the liner notes, the less time we spend listening to the actual music. Such dissections of words and meaning are directed at the brain -- and Benson is more concerned with the heart.