Ben Lee : Awake is the New Sleep

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Just do it, whatever it is. Awake is the new sleep. So wake up.

These are some lines from the first song off of Awake is the New Sleep, the new album from Australian Ben Lee, and those words pack a whole lot of meaning. Lee claims that he has simply come to grips with the fact that music is his joy and he is no longer trying to prove something, merely to enjoy his gift. In the process, he has created the best album in his career and one that can be placed alongside some of the best singer songwriters of the last few years. Brad Wood has even remarked that this is the best album he’s produced since Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville, and that’s saying something. This effort, truly a pop gem, is a testament to Lee’s superior songwriting ability and Brad Wood’s exquisite production talent.

Most artists, usually novelists but also singer / songwriters, reach some kind of artistic peak in their thirties. But then again, most of those people don’t start out at age fourteen with a band like Noise Addict. So now, at age 26, Ben Lee has vaulted to a new degree of ability. Awake is the New Sleep shows a maturity, a world view, and a depth far beyond its creator’s years. I guess he does everything early.

I couldn’t help thinking while listening to this record for the fourth or fifth time, that I felt not only like I was in the midst of a musical celebration, but at the same time comforted by Lee’s music, like I was wrapped in a warm blanket, in a familiar place, and that life was good. And this is exactly what Lee is trying to convey with this album. Whispery opener “Whatever It Is”, which is where the above lines came from, is the quiet philosophical reflection, an introduction or preface to the book that is to come. It tells us that we are about to experience something, that we should wake up, find our passions, and enjoy our lives.

Lee goes on to make observations on love, spirituality, philosophy, heartbreak, and more. “Gamble Everything for Love”, one of the standout tracks, is exactly what the title suggests. In it, he claims that the only way to get exactly what you want out of love is to risk everything for it. While that may not be an original concept, the song itself is original, honest and true. “Begin” could almost have been an outtake from one of U2’s last two albums as a ballad dedicated to New York City.

The song that will probably hear some radio play and become a moderate hit, at least for an indie label, is “Catch My Disease”. While Lee played with Ben Folds (and Ben Kweller) on a recent EP, some of Folds’ straightforward poppy and catchy hooks with blunt lyrics must have rubbed off. The lyrics are pretty much stream of consciousness as Lee reels off things going on as he wrote it backstage while supporting Phantom Planet in Pomona. With the group intonations of “that’s the way I like it” scattered throughout, it is sure to become a crowd favorite. Here’s a fun sample:

They play Good Charlotte on the radio,
and that’s the way I like it,
they play Sleepy Jackson on the radio,
and that’s the way I like it,
I hear Beyoncé on the radio,
and that’s the way I like it,
they don’t play me on the radio
but that’s the way I like it.

“Apple Candy” is a track that touches the heart. It can easily stand alongside Ani DiFranco’s “Untouchable Face” as a truly great heartbreaking song about a love triangle. It might not be as dramatic or pained, but the feelings are there nonetheless. As I am writing this I am realizing that every song on the album is fantastic. I can write at length about every track, but that would make for one very long review that most people would probably not read. So instead of wasting time reading about every song, go out and listen to every song on Awake is the New Sleep, particularly “Get Gotten” (an intimate and dark confession), “The Debt Collectors” (written after a vivid dream of Lee’s in which Conor Oberst handed him a package to carry through customs), and “We’re All in This Together” (featuring Har Mar Superstar, Jenny Lewis, and Jason Faulkner singing background and adding handclaps).

Similar Albums:
Pete Yorn- Day I Forgot
U2- How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
Robyn Hitchcock- Spooked

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