On My Way
hen it first hit the scene, I didn’t much care for Ben Kweller’s widely lauded debut, Sha Sha. I have to admit that, his release coinciding with the peak of my then indie-hatred, most of the distaste was saved for the cutesy album artwork of young Ben brushing his teeth. But above that, there was something in his shambling, rambling goofiness that didn’t seem to sit right. He was, as Beck once was, a kind of freaky man-child, neither totally ramshackle teen silliness nor wily grown-up smarts but an unsettling medium—and a sense that Sha Sha certainly wasn’t the best he could do prevailed. On My Way, on the other hand, is a wonderful album stuffed full of sentiment, emotion and melody—and traverses the bridge between teenagerdom and adulthood with a moving and thrilling honesty.
Some have called On My Way Ben’s “grown up” album, I think it’s more accurately Ben’s “growing up” album. What’s particularly lovely about the songs that make up On My Way’s narrative is that they cut both ways, exploring newly minted adult life with enthusiasm whilst longing for simpler pleasures. The title track is a sweetly unsettling letter to “mom”, detailing her son’s newfound affinity for burglary, murder (by karate chop!), friendship and love. The lyrics are particularly moving in their artlessness; as Ben wheezes, “I’m in love with someone who’s as pretty as a flower… She makes hats with her hands / She is such an artist” it’s simultaneously awkward and beautiful. Likewise, “I Need You Back” is an anxious West Coast jangle of a cry for help; Ben seems at once confident and confused in luring his love back. “My Apartment”, an ode to his adopted home of New York, is a halting account of both newfound freedom and the occasional loneliness of living away from family, so that lines like “In my apartment / The home where I hide / Away from all the darkness outside” gleefully play house and long for the safety of home.
The more aggressive tracks shudder with a newfound confidence and swagger. “Ann Disaster” crunches along VU-style, while Ben and Mike Stroud go to battle with squiggly go-go guitar solos and Ben sniffs, “I know what you want / You want a piece of me”. Where its sexy grumble would have seemed incongruous on Sha Sha, here it sits perfectly within the landscape of the album’s exploration of grown up life. Lead single “The Rules” is where producer Ethan Johns works his magic, distilling the energy (the band played live in the studio without the use of headphones or separate recording sessions) and interplay of the band onto the record in the same way he has done with Ben’s good pals Kings Of Leon. Ben’s west coast, country rock tendencies—hitherto cloaked by antifolk and indie/emo-ish tendencies—are coaxed out by Johns, with “Living Life” turning into a piano-led “The Weight”-esque sing-along with a blissfully muted flat-picked solo from Stroud. It’s joyful listening to Ben trying to keep it all under control, “Like a man, like a father”, and subsequently failing: “But it’s behind your door!”, blurting out the lyric as though he can’t take it anymore. Picking a highlight from such an embarrassment of riches is hard, but “Different But The Same” is unquestionably the most assured song on the album. As such, its piano-heavy power balladeering sits slightly apart from the rest of the songs, but there’s no denying its hugely moving take on classic rock’s more sensitive moments. The song’s prettily sung intonations that “You gotta be so strong, you gotta teach your son / How to stand up straight… To be different but the same” come across as Ben gleaning what life messages he can from the confusion of growing up and passing them on generously.
On My Way is obviously a transitional album, as its title would suggest, but this is in no way as negative as some critics have surmised. It’s transitional and not transient, as some have wrongly assumed it to be; a filler album between young Ben and grown up Ben. It is less concerned with fleeting childhood or fast-moving adulthood as it is the ongoing and ever unfolding paths of life. In its gentler moments and confused, energetic outbursts, it is an album of exploration and discovery, one that works just as well as a guide for those young folk on the same path as Ben as it does for anyone who’s been down the same road or one day hopes to. As for Ben Kweller, he is most definitely on his way to becoming a treasured and important songwriter and performer but thankfully, considering how many people think growing up means getting boring, he’s not forgotten his toothbrush.
Reviewed by: Clem Bastow
Reviewed on: 2004-06-17