Benjamin Shaw – Goodbye, Cagoule World
It has taken me a while to get into this album, I have to confess, but then that tends to happen when I first listen to Benjamin Shaw’s music. The reviews are always slow in coming – much, I assume and apologise for, to the frustration of the label – but it just takes me a while to digest. And to be honest, it’s not like he writes albums full of immediate pop hooks anyway, so you have to let it sink in a bit.
After the stumbling acoustic feel of the last album, albeit layered with drones and grumbly samples, this is a rather grander affair. There’s even brass – a sound so jaunty I can barely believe it has found its way onto a Benjamin Shaw record. But then the song in which it appears, Break the Kettles and Sink the Boats, has such a carefree lyrical refrain – “come burn some bridges with me” – and liberated feel to it that I almost wanted to phone up Shaw personally, just to ask about how much fun he seems to be having these days.
There are strings too, including some wonderfully not-quite-right cello, as well as a refrain halfway through the splendid instrumental A Day at the Park which sounds like it could be right out of the Eels back catalogue – just before the general discord and what sounds like terrified screaming build to a sudden and rather surprising crescendo.
Next up is Magneto Was Right – a typically Shawvian* song name, and one which I have to confess I think works rather better than the eyeroller of an album title – and it is here that we get back to more familiar territory. It’s a gentle acoustic strum, which highlights Shaw’s wonderful vocal delivery, which is unstrained and has a really genuine warmth to it. Even here, though, there is more than usual, in the lovely slide guitar which unobtrusively adorns the song.
You and Me, which follows, starts out like a genuinely expansive tune, but ends up almost as an embodiment of why this album works so well. It may be a departure from previous, glacially awkward Shaw material, but it ends up falling back onto all the same characteristics which made his previous work so good – namely, the personability of his delivery and the sensitive, affectionate pathos of his lyrics.
He can be arch, sarcastic and depressing when he wants to be, but what made his miserable stuff less miserable, and what keeps his more expansive stuff personal, is still Shaw himself. I have seen a lot of very compelling, idiosyncratic songwriters try and make bigger-sounding, more ambitious albums, and they end up diluting themselves when they do it, and thus losing the very thing which made them so special in the first place. Shaw has not done that at all, here, and in fact the extra instrumentation and broader mood swings seem only to make the personal aspect more accessible and just a little deeper and more three-dimensional than before.
It took me a while to realise it, but this might actually be better than his previous stuff. There is so much more going on here, and yet it never dilutes the core of what makes Benjamin Shaw’s stuff so good.
*Oh stop it, just let me have this one, alright.More: benjamin shaw