Ben Lee | Awake Is the New Asleep (New West)

With his fifth solo release (and New West debut), Lee shows his existential side. Having recently found nirvana, inner peace, or just a Zen-like state, Lee offers his most focused and smooth recording to-date.

 

It’s impossible not to like Ben Lee, the 26-year-old Australian indie ingénue. (We at Playback Central are so fond of quoting the words of a former publicist of Lee’s: “We love the Ben Lee.”) With his fifth solo release (and New West debut), Lee shows his existential side. Having recently found nirvana, inner peace, or just a Zen-like state, Lee offers his most focused and smooth recording to-date.

Opening track “Whatever It Is” is a soothing introduction to this elevated state in which Lee urges, in pure follow-your-heart fashion, “Just do it/whatever it is.” “Gamble Everything for Love” is a toetapper with a common theme: as simple as it may sound, following your heart is the truest test of courage. As is the case with many of the songs here, Lee manages to mask his deep thoughts and mind-opening ideas in gentle, jangly pop music.

“Catch My Disease” is an upbeat list of all that Lee sees and regales. “She told me she loved me like fireworks,” he sings, “and that’s the way I like it.” Later, he namechecks some of his fellow musicians getting airplay: Good Charlotte, Sleepy Jackson, even Beyoncé…and himself, of course. The understated groove that is “Ache for You” comes to terms with discovering unexpected feelings; the alt-country heartache of “No Right Angles” is a gentle genius.

The unassuming “Get Gotten” is the disc’s silent showcase, with Lee seductively proclaiming, “I want to get you/so get gotten.” Following the poppy “Close I’ve Come,” Lee returns to the acoustic guitar with “The Debt Collectors.” After admitting “I don’t know if I love you/but I really want to own you,” he reassures, “Everything is real/One day it will be all right again.” With backing group vocals from Jenny Lewis (Rilo Kiley) and Har Mar Superstar, “We’re All in This Together” is the fuzzy feel-good song of the collection.

In press notes about the album, Lee writes, “Some people…still subscribe to a harsh disciplinarian god that has nothing better to do than guilt us into clean living. I see her as a gardener coaxing strength from her sapling through the winter. Anyone can make flowers grow in the spring.” With Awake Is the New Sleep, Lee shows his ability to bloom, whatever the weather.

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