It’s one of life’s greatest conundrums that purveyors of power-pop — one of the catchiest, most accessible musical genres — often remain inexplicably obscure. That’s certainly the case with Brendan Benson, who’s released four pristine solo albums indebted to skinny-tie new wave, snappy mod rock and kaleidoscopic ’70s pop-rock since 1996. Even the retro-sharp songs the Detroitnative co-wrote with pal Jack White on two Raconteurs albums didn’t help his 2009 solo album, My Old Familiar Friend, resonate with a wider audience.
Although slightly more subdued than My Old Familiar Friend, What Kind of World, Benson’s fifth solo record, is more diverse, with forays into slinky junkyard blues (“Pretty Baby”) and sepia-toned country (“On The Fence,” a duet boasting loping saloon piano and the Emmylou Harris-goes-pop-tartlet warble of Pistol Annies member Ashley Monroe). Benson even expands his love of ’70s textures to include prog-pop on “Here In The Deadlights”; the tune’s droning riffs, wonky keyboards and Benson’s clipped, helium-buoyed delivery bear more than a passing resemblance to Rush.
Benson self-produced What Kind Of World at an analog-only studio in his adopted hometown ofNashville, and the vintage touch enhances the album’s sound. His usual nods to AM Gold — the Elton John-esque “Bad For Me,” Wings-level schmaltz on the horn-speckled “No One Else But You” — sound especially warm and inviting, while the album’s rock jags show impressive detail. Lurking organ burbles underneath the bashing riffs of “Come On,” while the zippy synths streaking through “Met Your Match” surface occasionally to add quirk.
What Kind Of World‘s title track is the most straightforward tune, but it just might be the highlight of the album. Lyrically, the song ruminates on romantic exasperation (or, alternately, functions as a series of observations on his career frustrations); however, its coppery, jangly guitars and a deceptively simple chorus are deeply felt. “I take it to heart/ I take it too hard,” Benson sings. “What kind of world? What kind of world? You take me apart before I can start.” Instead of wallowing in pity, however, his voice revels in a mixture of optimism and desperation — making the song as triumphant as it is bittersweet. Coincidentally, that combination is also the reason why What Kind Of World is such a riveting listen.