Brendan Benson doesn't quite bristle when he's called a singer-songwriter, but he does become a bit anxious. After all, the one-man-band act that the Detroit native performs on his latest album, The Alternative to Love, is hardly the stuff of guitar-strumming troubadours armed with harmonica racks and folk songs.
"Technically speaking, I do sing, and I do write songs," he says. "But I do more than that. I write these songs for a band to play. That doesn't really matter to other songwriters and solo artists. You can put them on the road with an acoustic guitar, and they'll do just fine. That doesn't work for me."
The Alternative to Love is the 34-year-old Benson's third album and the first on which he plays every single instrument himself. "It's really just a matter of time and efficiency," he explains. "It's easier and quicker for me to do it myself. Otherwise, I'd have to make demos and schedules. And a lot of times, the writing is done as it's recorded, and I can't always explain those things quickly enough to other people."
Loaded with power-pop songs, The Alternative to Love chronicles the ups and (mostly) downs of a romance that stalled right around the time Benson was gathering songs for the record. "I was thinking a lot about my relationship with my girlfriend at the time," he recalls. "We [eventually] split up."
Though you really wouldn't know it from the hook-heavy melodies and seemingly cheery tunes, The Alternative to Love is also the sound of Benson coming to terms with his career. In 1996, he released One Mississippi, which won him a cult following, but little else. It took him six years to follow it up with Lapalco, another set of springy power-pop that went nowhere commercially. He parted ways with Virgin Records soon afterward and began work on the new CD. "This record is more of an album," he says. "The others were collections of songs. This is a whole cohesive piece, and it's focused on a specific time."
The Alternative to Love is Benson's most consistent and enjoyable work. Its song cycle spins together a story of a romantic, searching for options when he knows damn well that there really aren't many out there. "I haven't figured anything out," he admits. "Which has been the story of my life, I think. I'm always conflicted between my wild side and my tame side."
Benson recently wrapped up work on a record he made with fellow Detroit rocker Jack White, which they plan to release later this year. After that, it's another solo album, this one with a full group. "I want to go into a studio, get a band, maybe a producer," he says. "I'm a little tired of doing it myself." Wouldn't want anyone to get the idea that he's one of those singer-songwriters.
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