Remember the days when male solo rockers ruled the pop charts? When you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing "Free Fallin'" or "Born in the U.S.A.?" Ben Kweller does. The 25-year-old's new album entitled Ben Kweller hearkens back to a time when Petty and Springsteen gave their roots rock a glossy makeover and became even bigger stars than they already were.
On this, his third album for ATO Records, Kweller layers acoustic guitars, electric guitars, bass guitars, pianos, glockenspiels, tambourines, xylophones, organs, drums, claps, harmonicas and even triangles atop shimmering vocal harmonies to create an indelibly melodic, sweetly nostalgic work that displays the depth of this ever-evolving singer-songwriter's craft.
Not only does the Greenville, Texas, native use more instruments on this album than on his other two, but he plays them all himself from slide guitar to drums. "It was intimidating to play everything myself," Kweller says. "Some people around me thought it was a crazy idea, but the payoff is always better on a crazy idea."
He found a cheerleader in British producer Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) whom Kweller turned to help him realize his vision. "Gil gave me the confidence to show people I could do this," he says. Norton also served as the prolific Kweller's editor. "He's excellent at finding the meat of the song or melody and bringing it to the forefront." Together, the pair was going for a highly produced Wall of Sound feel. "I've always been into using raw takes and keeping things pure and not overworked." Kweller says, "But there's something about the opposite that can be really beautiful, too."
Indeed, the production on Ben Kweller is in complete contrast to that of his previous album, the brilliantly raw On My Way, which was recorded live in a room with no headphones and few overdubs. Of the new album, Kweller says, "There's a difference between 'stripped-down' and 'simple'. You can have loads of different instruments playing, but there can still be a directness to it, if it's done right."
Ben Kweller may be the artist's most direct work yet. The writing is lean and focused, with songs about freedom and travel taking center stage. The opening track "Run," a nostalgic look back at Kweller's gypsy life, sets the tone, while the summery "I Gotta Move" carries it through to the reflective rocker "Penny on the Train Track," where Kweller muses about running into an old friend who is now a police officer. "I was at the Wal-Mart in Greenville looking for a mouse trap when I bumped into a buddy from high school and he showed me his badge. That was a big moment for me to realize that we're all growing up. To think that somebody I used to get in trouble with is now a cop!"
The album also contains plenty of Kweller's trademark off-kilter love songs and ruminations about relationships, such as the melancholy "Sundress," the starry-eyed "Magic," the regretful "Until I Die," and the conflicted "Nothing Happening," which is about loss of friendship. Then there's "Thirteen" a spare, piano ballad that Kweller considers the album's masterpiece.
"'Thirteen' was a breakthrough for me," he says. "As a songwriter with pop sensibilities, you can feel pressured to always write big, sing-along choruses. Lately I find myself placing the importance on emotional content and not on standard pop technique. With "Thirteen" I just kept writing verse after verse and never felt the need for a chorus. The words carried the song home. All these emotions were pouring out of me while I was writing it. I was thinking of my wife Liz and all that we've been through in eight years. Thinking about the friends that have come and gone, the people you think you know that you don't, the curveballs life throws you, the good and the bad."
Kweller has traveled a long road since leaving high school in the mid '90s to play rock 'n' roll with his teenage punk band Radish. When the group disbanded in 1999, Kweller moved to Brooklyn, NY to pursue a solo career. He flirted with NYC's Anti-Folk scene and self-released a CD called Freak Out It's Ben Kweller, which caught the ears of Evan Dando, Jeff Tweedy and even Dave Matthews, who signed Kweller to his indie label ATO.
2002 saw the release of the college classic Sha Sha, which ranged from delicate folk-pop to full-on rock freak-outs. He followed up in 2004 with On My Way, which critics hailed for its charming oddness and brightly contagious mix of lithe harmonies and shiny power-pop. Now, by nodding to the rock heroes of the '70s and '80s, Kweller is taking the next step in his natural evolution and perhaps making his mark as today's premier male solo rocker.