Ben Lee is the kind of performer that flits around your consciousness because he has good connections (for instance Beastie Boys and Thurston Moore) so you try his stuff, it doesn’t add up to much so you forget him.
Last year with the enjoyable 'Noise Addict' (a lo-fi bundle of joy) that he gave away he stepped back into my orbit. Now with a concept album about dreams and a more mature attitude (he now sounds like Ben Lee rather than some idea about how the Rockstar ‘Ben Lee’ should sound like) he’s produced by far and away the best thing he’s ever done.
Dreams are fecund territory, they’ve been explored many times and like the oceans they teem with life that we barely understand. He uses collages of people recounting dreams to reveal the complexity, creativity, absurdity and profundity of them. Dreams offer freedom though they are anchored in the everyday and Lee takes this approach to the songs. ‘Pointless Beauty’ starts like slice of Lewis Carroll meandering along like a rabbit that isn’t late until a huge chorus rears up and offers refuge. One way of thinking about this project is to imagine a happy Elliott Smith collaborating with a clean Flaming Lips. ‘Glue’ sounds exactly that way, a beautiful melody slightly fired and frazzled. Going too far into dreams can lead to dysfunctional behaviour, dreams can be dangerous, Lee explores this with ‘I Want My Mind Back’ it’s a song that relies on a central refrain, uses it as an anchor for all sorts of discursive disorientating electronic noises, the song can take these wobbles because of the strong central core. He uses the opportunity to lay in some ugly/beautiful guitars until the song turns into a cacophonous nightmare of noise.
I don’t think that Lee pretends to make claims for profundity; the theme binds the record together rather than offering a coherent narrative about dreams. The opening ‘Deeper Into Dream’ sets the tone; it sounds at first like the sort of whimsical pap that he’s churned out in the past, it develops though, little undercurrents surface, in unexpected way. A wave of noise crests and falls without fanfare as the song continues its journey, the ecstatic bowing of violins approaches like a cloud of starlings that land and quieten.
There’s thought and craft gone into this record, Lee just might have redeemed himself, and dreams might just start to come true.