Dudley Benson: The Awakening

NZ Listener

THE AWAKENING, Dudley Benson (Golden Retriever)     

At the time of their first albums in the late 60s, American art-pop pioneers Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks had a joke that they were going to change rock ‘n’ roll by taking the backbeat out of it. Of course, Parks and Newman’s brilliantly conceived yet commercially disastrous debuts barely registered a blip on rock ‘n ‘roll’s seismograph, while rock’s backbeat marched triumphantly on.

The debut of Dudley Benson is an album Newman and Parks would appreciate. It is a sophisticated and beguiling cycle of songs that tugs at the emotions and pulls on the ear as hard as any rock ‘n’ roll. And all without a backbeat.

Benson is a 24-year-old Cantabrian, who grew up on a goat farm in the Port Hills, and sang in the Christchurch Cathedral choir – all facts he alludes to in the songs on The Awakening.

And from the album’s first lines “On a fine day/if Mum says “okay”/I go out walking in the hills where I can play”, sung in a boyish yet perfectly pitched tenor, you know you are a long way from rock ‘n ‘roll.

Starting with his choirboy vocals, Benson’s album is dominated by sounds normally thought of as classical: string quartet, choir, and a variety of keyboards – harpsichord, organ, celeste, piano - which he plays himself.

And yet his hook-filled melodies, combined with the sense of personal revelation, make this far closer in spirit to the pop singer-songwriter than any contemporary classicist. No wonder he clashed with his university music tutors.

The songs on The Awakening criss-cross time, from vignettes of a pastoral childhood (‘On The Shoulders Of The Earth’, ‘Asthma’) to the arrival of his ancestors (‘Willow’), zooming in on details with a telescopic clarity (‘Etienne Francois came here on a boat/with his wife, with willow in a potato/Justine Rose, she planted the trees/On the banks of the Avon – they are still there!’)

That there is a camp element to Benson’s music is undeniable. “I’m a drama queen (baby, you know it)/so be my audience here for a while”, he trills in ‘Audrey H’. Yet what might seem effete on the surface houses an unexpectedly tough core. Benson’s flair for fable, combined with the folkish feel of his tunes, has the whiff of an old fireside songbook. And, as in old folk songs, there is often an eeriness beneath the cosy exterior.

A case in point is ‘It’s Akaroa’s Fault’, an irresistible round in which Benson cunningly links the chilling tale of Southland child killer Minnie Dean to the region’s geography. ‘The fault that runs across the South Island’, is more symbolic than seismic.

And there is ‘Rapaki’ another tale particular to Benson’s landscape, in this case Lyttleton harbour. And typically, Benson wrenches the song from the fabled past into the conflicted present.

No composer I have heard, rocker, folkie or classicist, has conjured Canterbury, its geography and its mythology, more completely than this. There is pastoral beauty and gothic sinisterness, Maori and Pakeha history, horror and homeliness. Benson stands amidst it all, shaping his music out of the contradictions.

It is almost redundant to say that The Awakening is a very New Zealand album; it’s unthinkable that it could have come from anywhere else. Yet Benson doesn’t draw broadly on Kiwiana the way, say, the Front Lawn did. His songs are so regionally specific that they bypasses any symbols that might stand as shorthand for ‘national identity’.

As individual a talent as Benson’s is, he is not as alone in today’s popular landscape as Parks and Newman were in theirs. The indie revolution of the past decade or so has opened the field for all manner of gifted eccentrics, and Benson’s music can sit comfortably alongside that of harp-handling fabulist Joanna Newsom, or, to be even more sub-generic, Rufus Wainwright whom, like Benson, maintains his independence not just from rock’n’roll’s backbeat but from its heterosexual hegemony. 

Tags: new zealanddudley bensonvan dyke parksrandy newmanchristchurch

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