Me and Benjamin got off to a shaky start. I didn’t understand his lexicon of awkward sounds, and his shambolic, world weary songs that seemed to take great joy in contriving to make you feel something positive before stabbing you in the neck with some cynical bon mot that made you wish you were dead.Or at least retired. Since exhaustive listens to his back catalogue though, I’ve come to realise that Shaw is cursed with an unerring ability to write the sort of songs that appeal to people who just want to be left alone and, most importantly, don’t want to feel things. They don’t want to be poignantly reminded of the absurd intimacies of relationships and they don’t want someone expressing the nightmare routine of work-eat-work-sleep in a humorous lo-fi setting. They want to trundle through their day with default survival settings. It’s easier to curse the commuters around you to a painful hell-bound death than it is to identify with them. It’s easier to be lonely than put up with some of the mind numbing tedium that goes hand in hand with succesful relationships. Shaw toys with all of these ideas but he does it in the way of a man who clearly wishes he could strangle his brain, a feeling I share on a daily (or more often nightly basis).
So you have the man, or at least my perception of him. But what of the music ? This album seems to be a direct translation of his awkward dealings with the modern world, colliding the unpleasant and downtrodden with the upbeat and the optimistic, giving you the same feeling as battling the world and all it’s minor evils but in miniature. The album keeps some of his more esoteric and challenging moments (a la “Summer in The Box Room” with it’s tape hiss and murky samples) and pairs it with his laconic guitar and string arrangements, while dealing out lyrics that seem banal but completely appropriate. The first song “No-One” is an excellent round up of all these elements, featuring drone sitar and some sort of foreign language instructional tape. It quietly segues into laidback guitar and string arrangements and the horrible beautiful sound of Shaw’s voice joins in. Describing someone’s voice that way might seem like slander but his voice is the root of all his music. He can’t really hold a tune but he doesn’t even try. Everything about his music seems to be be juxtaposing ugly truth with innocent beauty and those are the two things that you hear most clearly as his voice scribbles over the top of his songs. And I don’t think that any other voice could deliver the two line lyrical non-sequitir of “No-One” (No-one can love you, like I do, ‘Cos you never leave the flat) in the way that he does.
Moving on we get the lower than lo-fi musing of “Always With The Drama”. Beautifully lethargic Americana style guitar work with a devilishly pretty Rhodes hook, which Mr. Shaw takes great delight in destroying with the twin whammy of a scratchy motivational workplace recording and a tuneless but completely fitting Saxophone solo. This contrasting of “proper” music with “weird” music means that each and every song is a delight and a conundrum at the same time. “Break the Kettles and Sink The Boats” takes the same childish joy in destroying itself, setting up a jaunty pop tune with its cheerful brass and fuzzy bass line but then embellishing it with arrythmic drum noises from a Yamaha keyboard. I could happily move through this album and give you a written description of the components of each song, but that’s how reviews used to be done and I decided a long time ago it’s not useful in any other way than to reach a certain word count. What I need to say is that this is Benjamin Shaw’s most approachable album to date, without compromising on his core values of being a bloody miserable git and obtuse musical genius. The lyrics are everything that you’ve come to expect…succinct, sweary and funny and never less than perfect. My absolute favourite moment is when he gives up on the whole concept of his own style of lyric writing and hoists his own petard on the excellent “You and Me” (which should clearly have been the single) like so :
“So here’s a line about the system,
And here’s a line that’s quite funny,
And here’s a pop culture reference,
And a lazy refrain…like you and me”.
If we lived in a world that appreciated the likes of Benjamin Shaw, he would be getting paraded around like a sort of messiah for cynical, pessimistic and asocial freaks. But of course then that kind of acclaim would go to his head and ruin him, and he wouldn’t make music that sounds like the soundtrack to some sort of noble, heroic but cataclysmic failure. So I have no choice but to hope that Benjamin Shaw remains undiscovered, a rare and precious treat that me and a few other miserable fuckers can pass around to each other as proof of our heightened but unappreciated sensitivity.