Despite labeling themselves “psychedelic indie-pop”, the Sheffield-based indie project Mr Ben and the Bens is much more than that, and the range and depth of their sound is on full display in their new album, Who Knows Jenny Jones? When we talk about music, we often describe it in terms of genres, of influences, of, “if you like that, you’ll love this” (in the case of the Twitter marketing for the new LP, “that” is the Velvet Underground, Jeff Tweedy, Of Montreal, and Cate le Bon). People like points of reference, and they’re necessary, but that’s what they are—just points of reference. They’ll always be somehow incorrect, or, at least, an oversimplification.
Ben Hall, the songwriter, vocalist, and primary instrumentalist for Mr Ben and the Bens, is an incredibly talented composer, and he has built a phenomenally competent album. But not only is it well-constructed, it has a personality all its own—it tells the story of a shy young woman named Jenny living in 1970s Sheffield who is abducted by aliens and becomes an interstellar disco dancing superstar. This sounds like the plot of a rock opera of unseen levels of camp, but the story is secondary to the music, and even to the lyrics—all is slow and gentle.
The opener, the title track, ‘Who Knows Jenny Jones?’ seems particularly slow at first, with Hall’s vocals, less ponderous and more matter-of-fact, like a soft-voiced pastor at the altar—when he says, “Who knows Jenny Jones,” it isn’t a question. Despite the somber tone of the vocals and occasionally the guitar melody, the punctuating rhythm guitar and the bass runs gallop off into the future, and yet they never speed up—at the lyric “down your cerebellum,” you hear that the melody is still in time with the rest of the song. It’s almost like the Risset rhythm illusion (even if that wasn’t the intention), or maybe the inverse of a Chopin nocturne, where the melody pushes ahead and the left hand harmony keeps its own steady time. The track immediately succeeding, ‘The Edge of a Cloud,’ seems inexplicably Afrobeat-inspired at times, seemingly and yet not-at-all at odds with the rest of the song’s instrumentation, and is a delightful tune unto itself, but within the context of the overarching plot, you can tell that, if the opening track is the exposition, this is the bridge to the real story, thanks in no small part to a lyric with both literal and metaphorical meaning: “Destiny waits on the edge of a cloud.”
While ‘The Edge of a Cloud’ has a broader, more 1970s-style pseudo-international sound, ‘He Is the One’ feels uncannily like very early Kinks—happy in its rhythm, but somber in its lyrics and tone. Hall’s voice even comes across like a young Ray Davies in this track. That said, the lyrics have a depth of emotion typically absent from mid-60s popular music, the kind of depth conveyed by an absence of clarification, a reticence to interfere, by negative space, and not by overt emotion. Furthermore, it’s even the kind of tune that makes you want to unbury your old bass guitar and play along. The album’s other ‘60s jangle-pop soundalike, ‘Celecongratulations,’ tells a hurtling, panicking nightmare of a story, then resumes the regular tone of the album, and then again picks up the fantastical, twee intro, and repeats the process, like something off of The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society. Hall’s thin falsetto coupled with the well-written and performed instrumentals gives a definite rock edge despite the song’s overall rejection of the trappings of rock music.
The title ‘The Gravedigger’s Dance’ reminds one of Camille Saint-Saëns’ symphonic poem “Danse Macabre”, a horrifying hallucination in G minor, but this song is soft and even beautiful. The lyrics, while far from the most poetically complex on the album, create a celebration of life—“seize the night—no, it’s not too late to appreciate your life,” and, “you’re younger than you think tonight.” “Your bashful tenderness won’t save you tonight”—death is inevitable and good and evil aren’t that different at the end. A song about the immediate risk of death has never been less terrifying—it feels as peaceful as it possibly could. Sensationally opposite is ‘Eight PM’ which sounds like American folk rock—almost Western, with a rolling, content bassline, which, like Hall’s pointedly nonponderous voice, has nothing to ponder (it is 8pm after all) and so moseys to a slow, steady beat as an acoustic guitar keeps time. Something is on its way, says the narrator—there’s a poetry of panic in the lyrics overtop of the contented music, overtop of the idea of “eight PM on the boardwalk.”
‘Transmissions’ emerges with that kind of intro that is almost exclusively reserved for deep album tracks, the kind full of callbacks to motifs throughout the album. The lyrics are tricky—clever and switchbacking—following them is like trying to catch a cat. The narrator tries to relate knowledge of some sci-fi world to the audience, but it’s a world we don’t quite have the language for, and yet, it’s catchy and bouncy in its own way, like a parody of bubblegum pop. Pointedly not-poppy is ‘Equestria,’ which initially feels like incredibly old-school electronica, but with a more developed bassline and a smattering of guitar. It reminds one of a futuristic Saint-Saëns—as watery and glittery as a glass harmonica electrified. There are no vocals, no lyrics, but there’s a dialogue between a melodic bass and the synthesizer, one seemingly interrupted by occasional ornamentation provided by an electric guitar, a conversation we are not privy to, as if we were listening to space aliens speak to one another about us. But, at this point, I don’t think Jenny would care—in ‘Sleeping,’ she is sleeping and dreaming, “alone, without a sense of loneliness, alone, without a look of pity in sight.” Our Jenny is safe and sound in her new world—apparently as truly content in her loneliness as a godly hermit.
The album-closer, ‘It All Collapses in the End,’ echoes, lyrically and instrumentally, the preceding nine songs—the lyric “seizing the night” from ‘The Gravedigger’s Dance’ even re-appears, but with a different meaning. This track begins as nonchalantly as can be, echoing the basic rock music instrumentation from the beginning. Jenny, the lyrics say, has metamorphosized. Good for her. But she’s talking to ghosts and the world is ending, and yet, she “[flies] above it all.” The layered vocals in the last part of the track, creating the song’s title word by word, give the impression of a church choir, the kind from the American Deep South that sing of the end times, and then, suddenly, worryingly, the album is over. Few albums have the nerve to close so unnervingly, to leave you so worryingly unsatisfied, but I would not want anything else from Who Knows Jenny Jones?
There isn’t a single mediocre track on this LP, and certainly not one that’s unlistenable. The Lou Reed influence is particularly apparent in the first half of the album, through the creation of a spacey psychedelia through traditional rock music instrumentation. The second half employs greater use of synthesizers, in the style of more contemporary psychedelic pop, in the creation of a beautiful, anachronistic sound. But, above the psychedelia, above the glitzy, Bowie-esque story, above the Romantic, classical sensation, is a slow, plodding rhythm, steady as a dog-trotting Clydesdale. I don’t have the slightest clue what Mr Ben and the Bens is telling me, and they might simply be telling me a story, but I’m listening.
The new album, Who Knows Jenny Jones? is out now on Bingo Records – various formats of the record can be purchased here.