here are so many ways to read Ben Kweller’s recent ACL nosebleed, each of which says far more about the listener than Kweller: cocaine? Air-conditioned tour bus? Andrew WK wannabe? Punched by a jealous Ben Folds fan?
Which is to say, with a new Ben Kweller album, you get precisely what you think you’re about to get. If you’re expecting a snotty halfway grown-up kid with a bad haircut to whinge about the difficulties of being a rock star since age 12, Ben Kweller will do you proud. If you could use a pop wunderkind who can nimbly channel Brian Wilson and the plaintive soul of solo Paul McCartney, Ben Kweller welcomes you.
The title may suggest that Kweller sees this as the truest reflection of his musical self; the cover shot is certainly frank and unsparing, with a discomfiting emphasis on his capacious, controversial nose. Then again, maybe he just couldn’t be bothered to come up with another title, like that Blur album. The song titles betray a certain domestic literalness—you wouldn’t want to call an album “I Don’t Know” or “Until I Die” (not unless there’s a whole other significance to that nosebleed). He could have called it “Thirteen,” but Blur already nabbed that one.
It’s more likely self-titled because Kweller (shades of Brian Wilson again) played all the instruments on it. Like most one-man albums, it suffers from preciousness; his nasal delivery (that nose again) pretends to loosey-goosiness, but the songs are marshaled with meticulous discipline. Besides Wilson, Kweller evokes the perfectionist spirit of a thirteen-year-old Springsteen on the delicious “Penny on the Track,” all painful erection and nowhere to go: “I’m just a penny on the train track / Waiting for my judgment day / Come on baby girl let me see those legs / Before I get flattened away.”
Elsewhere, Kweller sings all domesticated (he had a child a few months before Kweller came out—providing ammunition aplenty for haters of cutesy hipsters who breed) with lyrics that evoke the vague sexual maturity of latter-day Sting: “We danced in the moonlight at midnight / We pressed against back doors and wooden floors / And you never faked it / And frequently we ignored our love / But we could never mistake it / Ooooh.” The haters may be onto something there, but Kweller carries his lyrics with élan, charting a treacherous path between winsomely quirky and pouting all-grown-up-ness. Ben Kweller may not sum up Kweller, but it’s a worthy personal statement from a popster whose chops keep getting better.