Smile Politely

Ben Kweller continues to mystify

Ben Kweller confuses me. This is not because he is an overtly complex artist, or even an “acquired taste” as many are so apt to name those more difficult acts. With Ben Kweller, my confusion is something largely different: I consistently like his albums and I don’t know why. Typically I would write off this type of artist as a bland character in a shoddily-written short story who can’t decide quite who he wants to be. Kweller’s previous three records have been full of consistent, accessible pop songs; his last, a self-titled effort, was in many ways was his least pleasing and his most ambitious, though his attempts to channel Bruce Springsteen’s road-ready driving force provided listeners with, among other things, one of Kweller’s best songs, “Penny on a Train Track.” Increasingly, though, Kweller’s albums have been hit-or-miss on a track-by-track level.

On Changing Horses, Kweller’s been hit with a bit of the Gram Parsons stick. The record’s press kit is careful to say that this is not a “country record,” but without calling it such, classification is difficult; it’s almost as if the juxtaposition represents a sort of irony. This is, in fact, a country record, overall — particularly in comparison to Kweller’s other efforts. Songs such as “Fight” are definite throwbacks to the country-gospel of the 1970s, while “Old Hat” makes good on its hokey chorus of “I never want to be the old hat you put on your pretty head.” On another release, in another context, this obvious mix of metaphors could be written off without a second thought. The fact that the song falls where it does, though — early on Changing Horses, where every song is peppered with twangy pedal steel — almost gives license to the song’s questionable lyrics.

The record — like all of Kweller’s other albums — is unquestionably charming, sometimes so in a way that is gag-inducing; the lyrics to the song “Things I Like To Do” are evidence enough of that. But again, something about the presentation earns Changing Horses a whole hell of a lot of points. Kweller collapses time, in a way, setting lyrics about Hurricane Katrina over musicianship that could have come from Parsons’s Grievous Angel. Listen after listen, I am inclined to say that this record is full of clichés, but once it’s over I have no hard feelings, and in fact the record seems made just right. Ben Kweller is not trying to make a record we can’t access: he’s not trying to make something we don’t understand, and he’s definitely not trying to make something we can’t — as a fast-consuming public — easily enjoy. Instead, Changing Horses is pleasantly simple and astute in its simplicity.

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