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Far More Neil than Paul Simon – Benjamin Dean Wilson’s Astonishing Debut “Small Talk”

Benjamin Dean Wilson
Small Talk
Tapete Records

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Imagine you took Bob Dylan and gave him to Randy Newman who in turn reshaped him into a seamless boltless Frankenstein storyteller that’s one half Jonathan Richman, one half Noel Coward and one half John Cooper Clarke. Yeah yeah, three halves don’t in most worlds make a whole but in Benjamin Dean Wilson’s world it’s a whole ‘nother reality as he rewrites the basic geometry of what a singer-songwriter is.

By training – or at least by intense habit – a visual artist with a background in theater and film, Wilson builds, concocts, twists and unspools (or spools and untwists) involved and sinuous tales of warm absurdity speckled with the soft-gray mundanities of everyday life. Essentially cinema verité songwriting alive with a dry sardonic wit, Small Talk (a title that is – quite appropriately – both self-deprecating and brilliantly succinct), for many handfuls of reasons, signals the arrival of a very unique member to a very exclusive club that includes among its cohort Elvis Costello (in his more storied story phase, circa late 70’s-early 80’s), Willy Vlautin, Tom Waits (though minus either’s sometimes tiresome reliance on the raggedly down’n’out trope), Robyn Hitchcock, Matthew Edwards and of course Ray Davies. Immediately reconsidering, however, it might be more useful, seeing as how the artist in question himself travels outside established parameters, to forego music world referents and simply say that Mr Wilson is far more Neil than Paul Simon.

Completely DIY but sounding anything but – Wilson handled all aspects of production, recording every instrument and vocal on to ½” 8-track tape in a tiny home studio – Small Talk incorporates the nimble fictions of the writer’s words into winsomely eccentric arrangements that never fail to engage while simultaneously appearing to have been thrown organically together on the fly. As providence would have it, the warm sui generis nature of that approach – sounding as offhand as it does meticulously edited – proves to be a perfectly appropriate format to host the foibles on display, for above all else in these songs, it’ the characters and their stories that is the story.


Wilson’s gift for language – the easy grace of its cleverness is like the more homespun cousin to Peter Blegvad’s – is immediately apparent as “Sadie and the Fat Man,” against a deceptively simple, naively complex backdrop of bright piano, the gentle emphasis of an acoustic, assorted string flourishes and multi-tracked wah-oo backing vox, unpacks the snapshot history of an overweight everyman’s romantic path into middle-aged adulthood, full of all the self-doubt and rickety hubris that implies and is en toto worthy of a Jonathan Franzen novel. No fireworks, nothing splashy or sensationalistic but nonetheless, like every track on this remarkable album, it does the near impossible work of showing how the complicated whole is in fact the product of a lot of little simples. Indeed, should you need proof that a life’s most salient epiphanies occur inside its most unremarkable moments, you’ve come to the right album.

“So Cool” follows a high school teacher down some behaviorally Escheresque hallways as he fights the thousand invisible forces inveighing against his efforts to retain his urbane cachet (essentially, of course, a midlife crisis but here presented with a spectacularly modest empathy via mandolin and violin and some nifty shooby-dooby-doo-wops for extra warmth). “William,” which by all appearance is a perfectly-pitched piece of paedophile pop, owns precisely the degree of jaunty playfulness to make it sinister, the one-act play in this instance leaving an echo that lingers far into the night and no wonder a tossing turning sleepless night figures in the lyrics. The next two tracks, “End of Never Again” and “My Wife,” maintain both pace and quality but I’ll leave the details for your own discovery in order to pursue the finale, an absorbing 14-minute masterwork that explores the songwriting style and form Wilson’s created to the furthest limits he can take it, stretching it til it nearly explodes – moderately, mind – with its own ambitions, a push-out that pays out in extraordinary dividends.

A record like this, it seems, can’t help but exude a regional zeitgeist, a kind of environmental feedback loop of local flavor that informs every syllable and fillip of sound to the point of infusion, and certainly on Small Talk there does preside a distinct midwestern academic sensibility – Wilson’s in Tulsa – that implies a John Cougar Mellencamp steeped in Schopenhauer, Shakespeare, and the quixoticisms of Cervantes that did his dissertation on the universality of Lolita (though the guy, at present, is a math student, which is somehow no surprise), and “Rick, I Tick Tock…”takes that remit for the grandest, most broad-daylight joyride imaginable, though the ‘joy’ part of that is open for debate.

Dancing with the quotidian until it turns profound, “Rick,” with its plot twists – think (the original) Hitchcock through the prism of an Ann Landers column – and Updikean impulsivity, is by far the album’s most flat-out literary outing, its characters bending through the fracas of dog bites and bad decisions and incidental infidelity with the compelling elegance of a slow-motion trainwreck. Music-wise as elastically concise as all five previous tracks, sections patched together with a chapter-like (script-adaptable) flow, the thing is lousy with a multitude of charms not the least of which is the coupling of inventive narrative surprise with a tone that negotiates a delicious tension between the sprightly and the dolorous, resulting in a longform slice-of-life piece that succeeds in capturing the messy bundle of sad humor our species stumbles through daily. Detail-rich, painfully recognizable and just about the sharpest droll there’s ever been, “Rick, I Tick Tock…” should skip the Grammys and head instead to the PEN Awards in New York.

There’s a tongue-in-cheek promotional video up on Youtube right now extolling the ‘genius’ of Benjamin Dean Wilson, taking satirical jabs at the artiste’s tempestuous nature, speaking in hushed awe of his prodigious talents, all that. It’s amusing in how it skewers both the typical Behind The Music ‘making of documentary and the aura of near-godlike greatness in which they cast their subjects, but in this case, in an instance of likely intentional self-reflective irony, the inescapable fact is that once you strip away the parody, that video, by the evidence gathered on Small Talk, got it right.