Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Matt Oliver, Mastered by Sam Patlove
It was already past dark when we pulled into the driveway of Brendan Benson's Nashville home. The leafy neighborhood was getting drizzled on this night in January and temperatures were getting ready to let a rare snowfall fly two days later. We'd just flown in a few hours earlier and, on the way to his home, we picked up two bottles of adequate red wine, knowing that we'd be greeted with an even sparklier of a smile when Brendan answered the door. The wine turned out to do the trick. We went through three bottles during this four-hour session in a small back room of the home. Benson had just purchased an old and wonderfully dingy upright piano and the tuning was good enough that it would pass muster and through the thick smoke of cigarette after cigarette, he and friend Andrew Higley (who was learning the notes of the songs as they went along), casually went through his song catalog and pieced together a magical set of songs that has a feel of the exact kind of evening that it was taped on: chilly and dim on the outside and warm and toasty on the inside. If memory serves, there was a fire crackling in his furry den, just off the enclosed porch and office space, with walls covered in family photos and those of certain artists he's worked with over the years, which we converted into the makeshift control room. Benson's pregnant wife came home halfway through the taping with some great, local pizza, which we ate during a break, around his old-feeling kitchen, standing on a wood floor that sagged and bowed like a barn floor worn by tractor tires and the hooves of cattle. So that's where we were, right there.
This night gave us Benson in an insightful state, playing a small handful of his songs that touch on the inner and outer dealings of people having to coexist with other people. Oh, the calamities that ensue in all of those situations. We're taken deep into the psyche of a sweet-hearted guy, a guy who would like to see most people and most things work harmoniously together. A late-album song from his brilliant album "Lapalco," takes us to a place of betrayal and loneliness and yet the pall that's cast upon the room is one of the lesson that all is war in love and war, or, that's the way the cookie crumbles. On "Jet Lag," Benson sings, "My so-called friends/Where are they now?/I guess a love that bends isn't worth much anyhow/They come and go/And talk their shit/And when I really need to know all I get is spit in my eye/The less I know, the better/The faster I go, jetsetter, I chase around the world, but I never get the girl/But I don't let it bother me/I cut out any part of me that's been bruised and refused and misused and confused." There are people bothering him, getting to him, bringing him down in so many of his finest songs, creating the atmosphere of the classic underdog, getting dumped on and pushed around. He sings elsewhere on this session, "I left my happy home/I took off down the road/I tried to hold my tongue/I've never felt so dumb/There's only so much I can take/When you point out my every mistake," and the wounds are present and we take the thought of a happy home lightly. He suggests that you reach out and take everything or everyone you love, as if you're entitled to it. One could go one further, as Benson might in regards to happiness, and just live on the basis of reaching out and grabbing it, for heaven's sake. It's yours. The same with the drizzly night, the impending snow cover, those two bottles of unopened wine and that baby girl that you just can't wait to see out in the sunlight.
*Essay originally appeared in November, 2010.