Throughout his 10-plus year music career, Ben Kweller has gone through his fair share of stylistic changes. As a teen, the Austin, Texas native first busted onto the music scene as frontman of the grunge-heavy, Nirvana-wannabe, Radish. By the age of 20, he had turned solo and quickly captured our hearts with a collection of pop songs that were beautiful enough to bring home to your mom, but still grunge enough for the always necessary 2:00 a.m. air guitar rock out. Then, there was Kweller’s DIY phase, first offered on 2004s On My Way, and fully realized on his self-titled 2006 effort. This was Kweller on his own, a man who thought to lay down his music with as much sincerity and honesty as possible on each of the albums 12 narratives.
Now at the ripe old age of twenty-seven and fresh off a move back home to Austin, Kweller has embarked on what is easily the most ambitious step in his ever-diversified career with the release of his newest studio effort, Changing Horses. Clocking in at just over 35 minutes, the 10-track album sees Kweller joining Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams as the latest indie-approved singer/songwriter to take a plunge into the ever misunderstood alt-country genre, abandoning the Weezer and Cobain-influenced sounds and the styles that have brought such great success for so many years, in favor of a record more on the realm of early Dylan and Neil Young. Yet, much like the men before him (see: Oberts 2008 self-titled effort, Adams 2007’s Easy Tiger), Kweller succeeds with flying colors.
Then again, as a man who grew up in the heartland of alt-country before hopping over to Brooklyn as he entered adulthood, neither Kwellers latest creative effort, nor its resulting success should come as much of a surprise. It makes too much sense not to work. After all, Kweller’s musical experimentation goes far beyond his “Radish years”; as a youth, both his father Howard and family friend/E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren exposed him to the sounds of rock and country, teaching him the eventual tools of his craft. Plus, its not like a country-friendly chord or two hasn’t ever made its way into Kwellers music before Sha Shas bittersweet Family Tree, On My Ways Believer and Ben Kwellers Sundress all featured their share of twangs, slide guitars and harmonics. If anything, the timing of Changing Horses and Kwellers return to the lone star state are coincidental; it was only a matter of time.
But thats not to say Kwellers return home didn’t play an influence on the record. In fact, a sense of fulfillment and closure appears throughout the album, being perhaps most evident in the closing track, Homeward Bound. The song sees its creator at his happiest, a man who has lived life, experienced both the good and the bad, and finally has found what he is looking for: a wife, a child, and a home. While the song tells the story of a “wandering junkie,” who as Kweller explains in an interview with Spin Magazine, “has a really good soul….and is just looking for a home,” the overall meaning is far more; anyone who has ever felt lost or helpless can relate to the song’s chorus, “who’s gonna carry him down/one more turnaround and he’ll be homeward bound/who’s gonna carry him down,” including the man who sings those words himself. Ultimately, “Homeward Bound” is perhaps Kweller’s most sincere and honest of narratives, and proves to be the pinnacle of Changing Horses.
That’s not to say the album’s nine other tracks pale in comparison. “Gypsy Rose” kicks thing off with a twangy guitar sound backing your prototypical tale about a one night stand that any true cowboy can relate to, while “Old Hat” sees Kweller taking his characteristic emotionally exposed love songs and adding simplistic, yet equally rich folk elements, which only further the passion and grace of the sound.
After two rather subdued numbers, the punchy “Fight” offers the album’s first upbeat track. Albeit a bit on the silly side, the song continues the theme of cowboy-approved tunes, this time conveying a saloon-like feel behind what is ultimately a call to arms. Im like my grandma/short but I stand tall/Playing every single card thats dealt to me,” Kweller sings. Combined with the piano and slide guitar providing musical accompaniment, the song evokes images of an 18th century night of fun – the drunken, saloon, ending in a brawl type.
The “Ballad of Wendy Bakers” sees Kweller back in reality, singing about what appears to be the true story of a lost friend. Second to “Homeward Bound”, the bluesy “Sawdust Man” is perhaps Changing Horses’ best track, a bluesy number that features a chorus as catchy as the piano and acoustic guitar part that reign throughout. The honky tonk influenced “Waitin’ on Her” follows, another tune dabbling in the subject of love amidst a style eerily reminiscent of early Dylan and Young.
At two minutes and nine seconds, “Things I Like to Do” is the album’s shortest selection. But as has been the trend throughout Kweller’s career, shortest usually means his most brilliant, or at the very least, his most pleasant. In the same way as “Commerce, TX” and “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)”, the track in question conveys Kweller’s youthful spirit and passion, and if anything, reflects that despite the style changes and moves back home, the forever young attitude that first captured our hearts on Sha Sha remains alive and well. The same can be said about “On Her Own”, yet, at the same time, a musician who sounds confident in not only his musical approach, but life in general, appears as profound as ever.
Much can be said about Ben Kweller’s Changing Horses. Some will call it yet another example of the the 27-year-old’s vast musical talents and ever rich imagination. Others will say it’s too simplistic, misguided, unorganized, and ultimately a failed attempt at a style and genre that Kweller didn’t have to and had no basis for attempting. But in music, so often are we clouded by the idea of what we want, what we think is good, that we forget the musician’s purpose. Ben Kweller never intended Changing Horses to be a masterpiece, nor even something as commercially embraced as Sha Sha or Ben Kweller. Instead, he used it as a token, a symbol of personal happiness and fulfillment, both in music and in life. And after ten-plus years of pop freak outs, perhaps we owe it to him to listen with open ears and open minds, aware not of its marketability, but of its inner meaning.