Review Summary: Benjamin Francis Leftwich finally finds his own sound and, in the process, loses everything that made him interesting.
When first bursting onto the scene in 2011, Benjamin Francis Leftwich quickly garnered some favorable comparisons. A British Bon Iver or a more accessible Elliott Smith; A poor man's version of both of these artists, sure, but favorable nonetheless. Gifted with twinkly guitars, subtle handclaps, and a beautiful voice, Leftwich seemed primed for success if he could find his own identity.
Eight years later and following a stint in rehab and a new-found sobriety, Leftwich has discovered his own musical identity: Unfortunately, it is entirely inoffensive and unimaginative, making us long for the days of Bon Iver worship. Subtle electronics have been added in, slight reverb to the point of annoyance echoes every word, and a sound that could border, somehow, on either saccharine or moroseness drips off the vocals, which now air almost exclusively on the side of breathiness.
That's not to say that this album isn't pleasant. But it rarely moves past pleasant, and never moves past forgettable. Songs like "Real Friends" and "Tell Me You Started to Pray" sound nice, but the kind of nice that is found on a Gray's Anatomy soundtrack that never actually catches mainstream attention. They plod and meander along, and as soon as they finish, they exit the realms of the mind so quickly that one is never actually sure if they existed in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest issue with Gratitude
is that it tries to experiment while still having memorable choruses, but just fails on almost every account. "Big Fish" borders on the edge of an interesting indie-electronic breakdown, "Luzern" sounds like it could be the perfect prom slow dance song, "Blue Dress" wants to be the soundtrack to your Spring, but none of them have any staying power. They barely have playing power, with each song basically having been heard by the time the one-minute mark passes on each of them.
There are a couple of instances where Leftwich stumbles onto something interesting. "Look Ma!", the first song he wrote upon becoming sober, samples a repeated operatic vocal track and has a song structure that's nowhere near as predictable as the rest of the album, while also making the best use of Leftwich's vocals. Closer "The Mess We Make" is the best bridge between Leftwich's indie folk stage and the electronic influences more prominent on Gratitude
. Undeniably the highlights of the album, they still only succeed while listening, leaving no lasting impression.
Leftwich should be commended for trying something new and for overcoming demons to make an entirely pleasant album. However, as long as he still struggles to establish his own musical identity, pleasant may be the only heights he'll be able to hit.