Ben Kweller - Changing Horses
released 2 February 2009 on ATO
These days, there are more white, male, singer-songwriter troubadours than you can shake a stick at. In such a saturated market, it takes a certain something to break through and make people sit up and take notice, whether that be one killer tune of a calling card, an exploitable gimmick, or just a huge slice of good, old-fashioned luck. Ben Kweller has never particularly had any of those three, but what he has had to separate him from the crowd was time on his side. After a short-lived career as front-man of Radish which was extraordinarily successful given his tender years (which, in hindsight, could and should have been even more successful), Kweller released his début full-length LP, Sha Sha, in 2002, still only aged 20. Sha Sha was packed full of slacker-pop anthems and displayed a precocious songwriting maturity. But it’s one thing when you’re 20 and can write songs like you’re 27, what happens when you actually are 27 and it’s time for album number 4?
The short answer is you cover every song on your new album in pedal steel and pretend you’re Neil Young. The long answer is something much more impressive that reveals itself to the listener progressively over repeated plays. Kweller has, in a sense, “gone country,” but has lost none of the songwriting savvy and keen ear for a melody he’s instinctively always had. Changing Horses is a collection of ten short songs, built around simple melodies, using simple instrumentation with simple words and simple lyrical themes. Yet despite its, well… simplicity, it’s undeniably effective.
But maybe effective is too clinical a word; it suggests songs-by-numbers and a lack of heart – accusations which certainly couldn’t be levied at Kweller. While each song here may not grab you by the throat and demand attention, the sheer strength of the melodies on display will keep you coming back time and time again. Changing Horses is a love-letter to the records from the time around the birth of what is now known as alt-country with its distinctively retro feel, yet – for the most part – it manages to steer well clear of plagiarism and pastiche.
Having said that, opening track, Gypsy Rose, is a shocker. In fact, whoever agreed to the track order on this album should be given a severe talking to, as Gypsy Rose is the weakest, longest and most unrepresentative song of the ten on display. Kweller’s voice has never been the strongest and he sounds out of his depth on this first track, as it starts and stops and flits between 4/4 and waltz time without ever settling down into something you can enjoy. It feels nervy and, if it’s your first listen, doesn’t bode well for the rest of the album.
Faith is restored with the beautiful and warm Old Hat (“I don’t ever wanna be the old hat you put on your pretty head”) but the following track, Fight, tries far too hard. Despite setting out to depict the wholesome all-American resilient spirit, a too-pleased-with-itself jaunty rhythm and an opening couplet – “He is a trucker burning the highway/His heart is as strong as stone” – which is just plain odd mean it ends up sounding more like the soundtrack to a questionably homoerotic 1980s Yorkie advert.
Happily, the rest of Changing Horses is 100% clunker-free. Actually, it’s brilliant. Kweller’s limited vocal range starts to become charming and strangely affecting for the first time, especially as it cracks on Sawdust Man. Kweller changes between short and catchy radio-friendly pop (Wantin’ Her Again) to heartfelt ballad (the sumptuously string-laden stand-out track, Ballad of Wendy Baker) with astonishing ease and expertise, and even a song which is built around a lyric consisting of a list of life’s small pleasures (Things I Like to Do) proves to be a joy.
Changing Horses emphatically answers the question of “what next?” for Ben Kweller and although not faultless, it’s a strong showing, especially for someone exploring a new musical direction as he is. Ben Kweller may not get a lucky break and this album may not have an obvious stand-out single or marketable gimmick, but it’s enough of a showcase to suggest that he may possess the fourth ingredient needed to make it big; indisputable songwriting talent.