17 April 2010

The Best New Album of the Year, Ever: She Got Benjy Davis Eyes

If you haven't yet read the rules for BNAYE, you can find out all about this pretentious bullshit here.

She Got Benjy Davis Eyes, or Lost Souls Like Us and the Existential Adolescence of the American South

As I listen to Lost Souls Like Us, the fourth studio album from Baton Rouge, LA band Benjy Davis Project, I'm struck by a strange feeling of déjà vu. I get the sense that, somehow, I've heard this band before. It may be because they manage to blend into their sound a mix of the sounds of diverse bands including, but not limited to Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Neil Young, and Modern English. I'm not kidding, guys. Fucking Modern English (the mandolin part in BDP's "Give It a Week's Time" sounds an awful lot like "I'll Melt With You).

They never outright cop anybody's sound, or even seem to intentionally reference anyone, except for "Heart and Soul," the terrible tune everyone seems to think they know how to play and which Tom Hanks plays with his feet in Big. More on this later. The point is, Lost Souls Like Us reminds me of a lot of music I've heard before, but it never actually is that music.

But it's not just déjà vu with these guys. I also experience jamais vu AND presque vu. I experience jamais vu (never seen) because the lyrics seem to alternate between something so deeply personal for their author that I have no experiential analog, or so seemingly pat and cliché that any experience I have that might relate would be rendered meaningless in doing so. Somehow, the music and lyrics are familiar, comfortable, as if I've been immersed in them or a while. Except that I don't recognize them. I'm confronted with a weird sensation of otherness. More on this later, too.

Of course, when I say I also experience presque vu (almost seen) when listening to Benjy Davis Project, I mean that there is some quality in the music that tugs at the back of my mind. I think it’s because BDP has a consistent sound, yet ever song is intended as a single. The album-as-a-whole-album idea doesn’t exist, but it almost seems like it does or should. It’s a singular idea somewhere on the verge of coalescing, yet the whole is never actually more than the sum of its parts. And given my experience of the vu-trifecta, I can't help but feel a certain connection to one of my favorite literary characters: Chaplain Albert Taylor Tappman from Catch-22.

Chaplain Tappman knows all about the various vus and spends most of the novel as a naïve and easily intimidated man, constantly bullied by his superiors and even his subordinate, Corporal Whitcomb. By the end of the novel, thanks to the protagonist’s resolve not to be trapped by Catch-22, the Chaplain decides to remain, but persevere. Given the Chaplain’s character, this is movement forward for him, a step forward into becoming a more fully developed person. It's a mature decision to move away from immaturity, a sense of the need for development arising out of a soul not yet fully developed. It is, in fact, a metaphor for the American South and the controlling idea for Lost Souls Like Us. (Sort of. I mean, presque vu and all that.)

And this is why I mentioned both Big and Bette Davis earlier. In Big, the whole point is that Tom Hanks' character realizes that he’s not ready to grow up yet, and also not to trust Zoltar. The moment of maturity is the recognition of his own immaturity. Similarly— although the movies are almost completely different otherwise—, Bette Davis played southern belle Julie Marsden in Jezebel (which convinced many she would eventually play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind) whose break with traditional Southern social norms gets her and her love interest (and others!) into trouble. Again, the film is about a character realizing their need for maturity and development, and also not to trust southern belles.

As I said, Lost Souls Like Us expresses, both lyrically and musically, the existential angst of the American South and the struggle of traditional values against new social and cultural situations. I get the sense that it has just dawned on them that they have deep, significant cultural roots, but still ought to reference Modern English in one of their tunes. Songs like “Mississippi” express a love for the South, which is a common enough theme, because everyone seems to love writing songs about coming home to the South. On the other hand, “Send Your Love Down” is about oral sex and all I can think of is Christopher Walken’s Colonel Angus on Saturday Night Live.

This mix of traditional themes and post-sexual revolution openness represents the feelings of boredom, rebellion, and need for love and purpose intertwine in the existential milieu of boys becoming men in the American South, which is exactly what Lost Souls Like Us is about. In many ways, the songs on the album are each distinct aphorisms, each expressing either the creating of one's own identity and destiny, or confronting some kind of otherness, or, perhaps, both. Even the title hints at the idea that we are all somehow together in being lost, but that the reality of our situation is dawning on us. It is in this place we experience déjà vu and Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, the jamais vu of the new experience of the moment, and the presque vu of our own potential, lost souls as we are.

We are in it together, with Benjy Davis Project, with Bette Davis and Tom Hanks and Chaplain Tappman, what the hell, even with Modern English. As disparate as these references are, even that characteristic expresses the message of Lost Souls Like Us. The mere recognition of this otherness and the catalyst of an experience of being scrutinized and recognized by another bring us to a point where we realize our influences, acknowledge them, and perhaps even begin to shape our destinies.

And maybe this is an elaborate way to point out to Modern English that the worst possible thing would be, in fact, to melt with the other. But even if that's the case (it probably isn't), Benjy Davis Project's Lost Souls Like Us really is about the existential situation of an adolescent soul in the American South, finding themselves lost and needing to provide their own destiny. Just like the rest of us.

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