When I caught up with Ben Kweller a couple of years ago, shortly after the release of his first solo album, Sha Sha, he talked about how great it was to make music without the burden of the record-biz machinations that practically defined the first phase of his music career. In the unlikely event that you weren't paying attention to local teenage grunge acts during the mid-1990s, that phase in Kweller's life was spent as the precocious front man--front boy, really--of Radish, a mediocre Dallas trio picked out of relative obscurity by Mercury Records to be America's answer to Silverchair.
Hoopla ensued, including an inexplicably lengthy profile in The New Yorker and a gaggle of ponytailed men eager to make Kweller's artistic and professional decisions for him. Because Silverchair itself had trouble selling albums, this hoopla sadly didn't involve the mass exodus of Radish's Restraining Bolt from Sam Goody and Wal-Mart. So Radish broke up, to the chagrin of few, and Kweller began in earnest his career's second phase: Sweet, Shaggy Solo Guitar Guy With Many Songs About Being a Sweet, Shaggy Solo Guitar Guy. He made a homemade CD on his computer and sold it at shows; he befriended Lemonhead Evan Dando and toured the East Coast with him in a Volvo; he moved to New York and ate at cool restaurants. And though he signed a deal with Dave Matthews' BMG-distributed ATO Records to get Sha Sha into Sam Goody and Wal-Mart, he made his own decisions about his music, and he was psyched.
When I called Kweller again the other day, he was psyched about something else: his recent marriage to longtime girlfriend Liz. Sha Sha fans might remember her from the song titled "Lizzy," which goes, "Me and my darlin' keep love alive even on Texas time."
Ben Kweller performs at Trees on April 26 and April 27 with Death Cab for Cutie and Centro-matic.
"It's the most monumental thing in my life," Kweller says in his unhurried, nasal whine, which recalls either junior high's nerdiest stoner or its most stoned nerd. "I'm gonna start thinking about my life, you know? Like, the life cycle and family and everything. My grandfather passed away last year, too, so I had a lot of stuff to say. My lyrics got very sentimental. And when I write a love song now, it's on a different level."
This is true--it's there for all to hear on On My Way, Kweller's new album, an altogether more grown-up piece of work than Sha Sha. The title cut, a lightly strummed acoustic ballad that is often the kind of song young guys Kweller's age break up rock bands in order to write, is as good a coming-of-age tune as any I've heard since I came of age: "I want to kill this man, but he turned around and ran," he begins, detailing his alternating urges toward murder, theft and friendship in language that's both plain and penetrating. The kicker is that between each verse he addresses his mom, confessing his doubts about himself but acknowledging the changes he can feel forming inside his mind and his heart. It's a disarmingly intimate little trick, this conflation of a young man's confidence and a little boy's insecurity. At the end of the song Kweller turns his attention to his new wife: "I'm in love with someone who's as pretty as a flower," he sings after a quick solo. "She makes hats with her hands/She is such an artist." Sentimental? Sure. Kweller admits as much. But refreshingly guileless, too--an offhandedly concrete image of a sensation nearly impossible to describe.
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There's lots more of that throughout On My Way: opener "I Need You Back"'s invocation of "all of my pain and then my fear"; the dual desire to receive direction and flout it in "The Rules"; the way "My Apartment" updates the social anxiety of pop's premier man-child, Brian Wilson. In the piano-led "Living Life" Kweller even indulges in a deathless rock tradition as yet unexplored by sensitive indie types: "Take it, Stroud," he tells guitarist Mike Stroud, ushering in a bit of laid-back six-string soul.
The album sounds more grown-up, too. Sha Sha's frayed DIY charm is replaced by a more muscular, spontaneous energy Kweller says he wanted to capture after spending the past two years on the road with his band. "Once in a while we'd record something at sound check, and it would sound so good," he explains. "We'd think, 'Why aren't we in the studio recording this?'" So Kweller went to L.A. to meet Ethan Johns, who produced the final Whiskeytown album, Ryan Adams' Heartbreaker and Youth & Young Manhood, the debut by Kweller's pals Kings of Leon. "I was at their family reunion"--the Kings are a family of three Tennessee brothers and their cousin--"and they told me, 'That guy knows how to record rock and roll.'" Kweller and Johns "hit it off" and devised a plan to make On My Way live in the studio with minimal overdubs and a limited number of takes per song. I tell Kweller he and his band must've rehearsed their faces off before beginning production.
"No, not too much," he says. "Playing every night kind of becomes your rehearsal, you know? I don't love rehearsing. For tour you have to, or before doing Conan O'Brien or something like that. But Ethan's so good at making it not feel like you're in the studio--like, 'Oh, fuck, we're on the clock!' There was no pressure. Lots of stuff happened on the spot."
The rawness suits Kweller's material. When I reviewed the CD a few months ago, I wrote that "Ann Disaster," a trashy, glammed-out rocker about an apparently predatory lady, felt like the work of a poseur, of a nice kid trying to glom onto the Brooklyn rock resurgence swelling just beyond the walls of his precious apartment. But I was wrong. Or if I wasn't wrong, I was missing the point: Like everyone's transition from one phase of being to another--from youth to young manhood--Kweller's trip can be awkward; it can include a couple of steps onto unfamiliar, not entirely solid ground. But that's life. As Kweller sings in "Different but the Same," On My Way's wobbly soft-rock closer (which, if we're being honest, could do without the distinct aroma of latter-day Ben Folds): "You gotta be so strong/You gotta teach your son how to stand up straight when you want to run/How to care and love, how to be yourself/To be different but the same."