Brendan Benson has always had an uncanny knack for first-person pop. Since his glimmering 1996 debut One Mississippi and its blisteringly catchy 2002 follow-up Lapalco, Benson's lyrical output has been widely focused around his repeated looks inward. The words "me," "mine," "my," and "I" come up a lot. More neurotically autobiographical and self-analyzing than narcissistic, the singer's hyper-personal inspection of himself and his struggles with the world are reflective of the meticulous magnifying glass he applies to his winding power pop compositions. The combination of therapy session lyrics and deeply controlled perfectionist pocket symphonies has really cultivated a sound that feels like being inside Benson's head, jittery place that it may be. His fifth studio album, What Kind of World is a further look inside the songwriter's wiry inner world, thankfully for his listeners a world that has as many ELO-inspired bombastic hooks and killer guitar tones as it does personal hangups. Benson's gift for harmonizing with himself is in the spotlight on songs like "Light of Day," fuzz-tone guitar lines pushing along the song's richly layered chorus. Long a student of the Beatles and everything that came from their lineage, the songwriter leans heavily on Lennon-esque melodies and wistfully nostalgic moods on songs like the roots rocky country-porch amble of "On the Fence" and the piano-driven single "Bad for Me." "Pretty Baby" is the odd song out on the album, with an eerie melody duetted by Benson and vocalist Ashley Monroe surfing on a huge beat and spooky Mellotron strings. This dusty collection of theatrical sounds bears the audible influence of Benson's songwriting partner in the Raconteurs, Jack White. White never shies away from over the top melodrama and filmic seriousness in his songs, and "Pretty Baby" is the most dramatic of the bunch on What Kind of World. This is as dynamic a record as Benson has ever made, but trades some of the homespun charm and young hunger of his earlier work for a more expensive-sounding studio sheen. The songs sound every bit as inspired, but something in the production of the album makes them less immediate, requiring a second or third listen before they really sink in. All told, the album is more of a grower than most of Benson's instantly gripping catalog, but those kinds of records from a longstanding champion of pop songwriting suggest growth both personal and musical. At this point in his journey, Benson's been writing self-accessing pop songs from a gleefully frazzled perspective for close to 20 years. When the results of his introspection sound so nice, we can only hope he takes as long as possible to sort out his issues.
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AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas