Late afternoon, Miami, and Iggy Pop and I were standing watching for a manatee that occasionally swims up along the river at the end of his garden. Pop was bare-chested in cerise trousers, talking about Brendan Benson. “Well you know Brendan,” he said, “you how Brendan is, how Brendan sounds…” and as he spoke he waved his hand, stirring the warm air.
He was telling me why he had invited Benson to sing on a track on the Stooges’ 2007 album the Weirdness. “I wanted a sweet, clean, effortless American voice on that particular chorus,” he explained, as we looked down the river. “And Brendan had the voice.”
It wasn’t until this moment that I truly realised the Americanness of Brendan Benson. I’d long had him pinned as an Anglophile; heard in the glint of his lyrics, in the texture of his music, the influence of Elvis Costello, the Beatles, Bowie.
But as Pop pointed out, it was an Americanness lay in that voice. Benson’s voice has a gleam to it, a West Coast shimmer, the shine of a sleek new fender. When I hear Brendan Benson sing I think of the furl on a Coca Cola bottle, of broad Midwestern skies and bright yellow mustard.
It was there in the biography of course: a lifetime spread across four states, from a childhood spent on the outskirts of New Orleans, to his years in Detroit, Michigan, sojourns in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and a more recent relocation to Nashville, Tennessee.
Inevitably this has brought an itinerant quality to his songwriting, a geographical and emotional search for somewhere to belong. It is there in many of the titles: One Mississippi, Lapalco, Metarie, House in Virginia, Life in the D. But it is there, too, in the songs’ tale of perpetual quest, both literal and emotional: is this the place? he seems to be asking. Is this the girl? Is this What I’m Looking For?
Somehow Benson has shaped these restless-hearted stories into songs that fit together with near-mechanical neatness, that carry the delicious clunk-click of rhyme: ‘hop’ to match ‘shop’, for example, or ‘shade’ for ‘esplanade’. These are songs that arrive perfectly formed, immaculate, well-polished, songs that are musical Model Ts.
It is a style he has honed, of course. On 1996′s One Mississippi, the songs came rough-hewn but charged with hooks and with wit; 2002′s Lapalco brought a perfect pop ripeness, and by The Alternative to Love in 2005, there was something quite brilliant, quite burnished about his songwriting. Along the way he has co-written and recorded two spectacular albums with the Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldiers and Consolers of the Lonely.
For Benson, The Raconteurs was not just an opportunity to play with close friends Jack White (The White Stripes) Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler (The Greenhornes) but also an chance to roll around in the rock, psychedelia and blues that had shaped his musical taste. He once told me how he fell in love with the Blues when he first heard Cream playing Rollin’ and Tumblin’ on the radio; how this led him to Howlin Wolf and to a guitar style that is “scuffed, scruffy, flappy.” “My stuff is all chords and melody,” he said. “And so playing with the Raconteurs is so liberating because, when you play the blues with other people, you’re all on common ground, you all know the same basics.”
This year’s offering, My Old, Familiar Friend, gathers together all of these influences – the Americanness, the Anglophile twist, the geography, the rock and the pop to create something truly exceptional. Recorded in Nashville and London, mixed in LA, produced by Gil Norton (Pixies, Echo & the Bunnymen, Foo Fighters) and mixed by Dave Sardy (The Rolling Stones, LCD Soundsystem, Oasis) it is a marriage of passion and perfectionism, an illustration of all that is special about Benson – from the glimmer of “Feel Like Taking You Hom”e to the “Motown” swoon of Garbage Day.
The key to Benson’s talent has always rested there in the music itself. Through all of his songs ribbons a delight in melody. It was there in One Mississippi’s Bird’s Eye View, just as it is there in My Old, Familiar Friend’s Poised and Ready. For Benson, words themselves are musical instruments; feel it flutter through t he rhymes of Don’t Wanna Talk: “I hear you loud and clear/ But now I fear this ear/ I’m lending/ Is falling off/ And all is lost/ And it seems never-ending.”
Benson’s musical approach is detailed, craftsmanlike, fastidious. Take for instance A Whole Lot Better from the My Old, Familiar Friend, in which harmonies, hand-claps, guitar are layered to produce a work of such heart-filled buoyancy, a work that culminates in the sweet, dove-tailing swoop of its refrain: “I fell in love with you/ And out of love with you/ And back in love with you/ All in the same day.”
Down by the river we waited for hours, but the manatee never came. The lights came on in the houses over the water, and someone started playing Nat King Cole. There are many things I remember from that afternoon with Iggy Pop, a buff-coloured lizard on the table, a Head & Shoulders bottle in the bathroom, but there are three memories that always burn brightest – the warmth of the air, a shade of cerise, and that perfect description of Brendan Benson’s voice: Sweet. Clean. Effortless.