Review Summary: Hooks, melody, and more hooks from the man best known as 'the other Raconteur'
Ok, so getting out of the way the fact that Benson's power-pop masterpiece 'Lapalco' was pretty much impossible to follow, 'The Alternative to Love' is a solid album in its own right, boasting some stunning songs. It kicks off in great style with 'Spit it Out', a driving, airy rocker with a killer chorus and whirling synths - in fact remarkably similar to Lapalco's opener, 'Tiny Spark', perhaps even surpassing it in terms of songwriting . Though none of the other tracks can keep the pace of the opener, there are riches to be found in 'Cold Hands (Warm Heart)', with it's pretty, McCartney-esque melody and lush, gently shuffling arrangement, emphasizing the retro pop influences present all over the record. The country-tinged title track teases for almost 2 minutes before drifting into a lovely bubblegum-folk chorus, and the sprightly 'Gold Into Straw' re-invigorates the album somewhat after a string of so-so ballads, which unfortunately dominate the middle of the album - light drifting psychedelia is OK for a few minutes, but ultimately serves to dilute Benson's irrepressible sense of melody. That said, 'The Pledge', with its cavernous, Phil Spector on steroids drums, chiming bells, and BIG, OBVIOUS CHORD CHANGES actually sidesteps cliche and ends up as welcome detour into pure 60s fetishization.
However, despite the occasional style shifts, this is not Benson's own personal 'Kid A' moment - the music is power-pop through and through, with the requisite chiming guitars, gentle palm-muting (/m), and angelic harmonies. Such formulaic arrangements would normally fall into the abyss of ultimate blandness under most people's watch, but Benson's sturdy songwriting and attention to detail thankfully prevent this. The Elliot Smith-alike intro to 'Flesh and Bone' and the pleasingly ramshackle closer 'Between Us', which harks back to Benson's earlier work on 'One Mississippi' are both welcome additions - subtle variations on the overall mood without feeling out-of-place or like token experiments in genre.
Lyrically, despite the odd entertaining barb such as 'you give a whole new meaning to the same crap' (on 'Spit it Out'), Benson can come across as too mawkish and earnest. Though it's nice to hear a record so free of cynicism in this modern age, there's only so many ways you can write about being jilted, and Benson can sound contrived and awkward at times, as on the otherwise excellent 'Feel Like Myself', where he intones 'I won't forget/gonna make you regret/the day you were born/I'll leave you forlorn'. However, he creditably avoids slipping into mawkishness throughout the album, dodging the old power-pop cliches even when writing about the same old subjects. In short, he's no Dylan, but the lyrics really aren't the focus here, pretty much serving as something for Benson to hang his irresistible melodies on.
And that's the problem. Benson is apparently incapable of writing a bad melody, and the first thing you come away with after listening is the sense that he could craft great, tuneful pop albums for the next decade or five. Thing is, is he capable of doing more than that? Because in this day and age, when genre-blending artists are commonplace, grinding yourself further into a niche is the last thing you want to do, and it would be sad for Benson not to be more highly recognized for the top-rate pop songwriter this album proves he is.