Review: 30 Years Later Ben Watt Hasn’t Lost His Finesse On New ‘Hendra’ LP
It’s been over 30 years since Ben Watt released a solo album, North Marine Drive. In that time, he has had a more varied career than most of his contemporaries. As half of alt-folk darlings turned dance pop superstars Everything But the Girl with wife Tracey Thorn, Watt elevated electronica to a fresh level of mainstream viability with songs like “Missing” and “Wrong” long before anyone dreamed up “EDM.” Further immersing himself in beats, Watt became a DJ, producer, remixer, and promoter, ultimately launching his own party Lazy Dog, and record label, Buzzin’ Fly – check his classic take on Sade’s “By Your Side” or his collaboration with Estelle on “Pop a Cap in Yo Ass” for primers on his template-setting deep house touch. Like Tracey, Ben is also an author and has written two well-received memoirs. On a heavier note, he has also dealt with an autoimmune disease, the recent deaths of his father and sister, and found himself at a mid-life crossroads – “a pop musician in an electronic world.”
All of these experiences have been distilled eloquently through Watt’s imagination into not one, but two touching and personal works: his most recent memoir, Romany and Tom (about his creative parents’ complex relationship, out in June on Bloomsbury Press) and his new album, Hendra (out April 29, on Unmade Road). The concurrent release of both the book and the album provide a stereo glance into Watt’s life and creativity. Here’s a man, a husband, father, artist who has spent much of his life in the spotlight, just as his parents had aspired to in their day. The echoes of history may haunt Watt, but in his music and books, Ben has wrestled his way through the thickets with earnest and rhythmic writing that is confessional without feeling solipsistic, poignant without feeling contrived, terse without feeling emaciated, and revelatory without feeling exploitative. His ability to slip subtle twists into unexpected moments in his narratives and lyrics creates hooks that sink into and bait one’s own memories. His knack for juxtaposing details of inner and outer worlds is a case study in the tried and true axiom “make the personal universal.”
On the album, Hendra, Ben’s finesse with both dance and rock music manifests in his skillful meshing of tropes and choice of partners – electronic producer Ewan Pearson adds a crystalline digital sonic sheen, Suede’s Bernard Butler adds some analog pop muscle; and David Gilmour’s slide guitar imparts a dreamy grandeur to “The Levels”. “Nathaniel” is a swinging up-tempo ditty inspired by a post-mortem graffiti tribute he rode past in Oregon. Using sunny, ‘70s West Coast-style vocals and guitar, Watt crafts a meditation on how the tragedy of strangers becomes political theater, albeit in a manner that is blissfully more palatable than this description could ever. On “Matthew Arnold’s Field”, a keyboard and vocal driven ballad, he describes scattering his father’s ashes in a deeply symbolic environment without losing sight of other people around him, among them a couple in the thick of mundane life, having tea and eating sandwiches. The permeability between life and death is also explored on “The Gun” which tackles the controversial theme of violence without hopping on a soap box, instead highlighting the ironic horror weapons advocates experience when the karmic woods come to their gated McCastles, as it were. The title track “Hendra” has a mystical, David Crosby vibe to it. On “Young Man’s Game”, a bar room sing-along waiting to be tapped, Watt muses on aging and his place in the (music) world as he’s evolved from a multitasking boy Midas to a wizened elder – one pretty content with lot in life.
At times Hendra evokes the blue-eyed soul, pastoral folk and electronic noodling of boom bap aficionado Scritti Politti or Scottish troubadour King Creosote who also delved into electronic pop with Jon Hopkins. In other places, it invokes Neil Young, John Lennon, Santana. Through it all, however, it’s Watt’s story and he tells it his way. “Words, beats and notes – it’s all we have. It’s just a question of playing them in what feels like the right order at the right time, and at the moment, ‘Hendra’ just feels right,” Watt has said. We couldn’t agree more.
Watt will be doing a short tour of the US in June. Check his site for details.