Essaying the pop culture that matters since 1999
Alec Benjamin’s (Un)Commentary gets caught up in the details. Is that good or bad? He acknowledges that his cerebral qualities are a strength of his music.
Alec Benjamin gets caught up in the details- and he’s constantly oscillating between considering that a good or bad thing. “I get so caught up / I’m always stuck in my head / I wish I could escape,” he says on the single “Mind is a Prison”, from his debut album These Two Windows (2020), which describes a metaphorical escape from his brain as if it were a prison cell. However, Benjamin acknowledges that his cerebral qualities are a strength of his music. “What I love to do is think,” he told Zach Sang, “and the way I make a living is by putting those thoughts into songs.” Benjamin’s love for contemplation is evident in his music. He magnifies thought experiments into catchy parables, animated by slick studio production and acoustic instrumentation. He also channels his introspection into increasingly autobiographical tales that reveal the person behind his signature third-person narratives.
Benjamin often doesn’t hesitate to reveal the inspirations behind his songs. Benjamin said a school bully and a revelation about that bully years later inspired “Boy in the Bubble” from his debut mixtape Narrated For You (2018). Benjamin creates a three-dimensional portrait of a schoolyard antagonist: “He was scared to go / Back to his house ’cause his pops was home / Drowning his troubles in whiskey bubbles.” Although autobiographical, “Boy in the Bubble” fits neatly into Narrated For You, a collection of songs both fictional and non-fictional. This approach to creating an album, viewing it as a collection of songs and stories, has characterized Benjamin’s subsequent bodies of work as well. “Throughout history,” he told Zach Sang, “people have recycled the same themes. These Two Windows is the world through my eyes.” His sophomore album, (Un)Commentary, released April 15, 2022, builds on this idea.
Despite his prolific writing style, Benjamin doesn’t seem to prefer the album as an art form. He told Zach Sang, “The album is a product…a thing we created to sell music.” This perspective on the album may prove a keen adaptation to the current state of the music industry, which relies on singles. Although Benjamin releases bodies of work, the stand-alone nature of many of his songs primes them for internet virality and streaming success, which often only requires one track or snippet of a song. Many of his fan-favorite songs, such as “Paper Crown” and “Beautiful Pain”, exist solely as uploads on Benjamin’s YouTube channel but are essential to understanding Benjamin as an artist.
At 16, he wrote his first song, “Beautiful Pain”, about the passing of his grandfather: “And I’d climb to heaven if I could find you / Even with a scar this butterfly flew.” “Beautiful Pain” represents Benjamin’s autobiographical knack, while “Paper Crown” displays his ability to craft emotionally resonant parables: “A paper crown, and a heart made of glass / A tattered gown, and a kingdom of ash.” The song’s story of a banished queen encapsulates feelings of loneliness and isolation that many related to during the COVID-19 lockdown. Benjamin’s penchant for third-person narratives has served a purpose throughout his work. He told Riff magazine, “By using characters in a story as a tool, I didn’t have to necessarily put myself out there as much.” However, on (Un)Commentary, he changes this tactic to a degree.
Un(Commentary)’s most wrenching autobiographical track, “Older”, is also its catchiest. Co-written with pop singer Charlie Puth and producer/musician Ryan Tedder (One Republic, Taylor Swift), the track narrates Benjamin’s reckoning with growing up as electronic production escalates in intensity throughout the song. It showcases Benjamin’s ability to incorporate contemporary sounds into vintage singer-songwriter stories, maintaining vulnerability against electronically-backed hooks. “Guess my childhood is over / Now I’m taking down my posters / And I’m putting all my things inside a box next to a toaster,” he sings, his eye for detail ever-present.
Benjamin’s autobiographical storytelling is sharp throughout the album. On the lead single, “The Way You Felt”, Benjamin reminiscences on a past relationship, saying, “When you knew it was a lie / I was headed for Kentucky.” Although he places the song geographically in the lyrics, he became more specific in the music video, filming in front of the college dormitory where he and his ex spent time together. Here, Benjamin joins the resurgence of the autobiographical singer-songwriter movement. Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo have made this method of songwriting fashionable again by creating hook-driven songs about high-profile subjects. However, Benjamin, Swift, and Rodrigo all have more in common with the songwriters of Laurel Canyon than modern pop stars. In the digital era, mundane details, such as the color of Benjamin’s ex-girlfriend’s shoes, or Taylor Swift’s scarf, can become cultural touchstones. The internet allows for hyper-fixation of specific details in art and business.
At 19, during his freshman years at the University of Southern California, Alec Benjamin was dropped from Columbia Records. But he found success in the following years in unconventional and newly-conventional ways. Benjamin played outside Troye Sivan and Shawn Mendes concerts to find fans. Then, in 2017, America’s Got Talent contestant Merrick Hannah performed an interpretive dance to Benjamin’s song “I Built a Friend”. Benjamin released a rerecorded version of this song to capitalize on the publicity, as his old record label still owned the original. Luckily, Shazam recognized the new version, and the song charted on iTunes. Benjamin was then signed to Atlantic Records.
This redemptive tale shows how viral moments can make an artist in the digital age. Capitalizing on sporadic success helps ensure success in the long term, especially for artists such as Benjamin, who can write and produce their own songs. Benjamin’s experience represents how the internet is restructuring the music industry. To avoid legal conflicts with former record labels, such as the ones faced by Benjamin and, famously, by Taylor Swift, artists now sign distribution deals, which allow them to retain control of their master recordings. Artists who can write, produce and use the internet to market their music have less need for record labels, especially when streaming royalties are so low. Self-sufficiency in the music creation process has yielded bedroom pop, a genre of low-fi acoustic ballads that has grown thanks to artists such as Alec Benjamin and Clairo. The pandemic accelerated this trend, a reaction to the high-octane club pop of the late 2000s and early 2010s.
Un(Commentary) is a pandemic record in several ways. First, it exemplifies Benjamin’s tendency to structure albums as a compilation of stories. Lockdown, which trapped individuals inside with ambient thoughts, yielded an environment conducive to creating this type of album. (Taylor Swift’s folklore (2020) is the gold standard lockdown album.) Benjamin told People magazine, “From the comfort of your own home, you got to see society fall apart and then get put back together in real-time.” This grim diagnosis is indicative of Benjamin’s artistic style. Although Benjamin crafts upbeat tunes and animates them with androgynous, smooth vocals, their content is often dark. In “Shadow of Mine”, he says, “Everywhere I go my shadow / It follows behind / We grapple, we battle, but we / Are shackled for eternity.” But a positive track follows this one.
Standout “Speakers” finds Benjamin wondering how he and a partner will look back on their relationship in the future. He says, “Don’t forget. This story’s not over yet… / Rewind like an old cassette / And I’ll be the song that’s on your speakers / Playin’ for you.” The hook, structured around the line “playing for you”, grows into a crescendo in the second chorus. When it mellows out on the final one, Benjamin’s voice is backed only by piano chords. He communicates that a memory welled up inside of him and solidified into something stable and permanent.
Another standout, “Nany Got a Haircut”, mediates the emotional extremes of the album, and brings Benjamin back to his third-person MO. An upbeat vignette about the coolest girl in town, the song investigates both sides of being beautiful: “Drawin’ all the eyes, how nice,” Benjamin sings in the first verse. But by the second, that line becomes, “If I were like Nancy / Dressin’ up all fancy / Fightin’ off her freedom, I / Think I would die.” Benjamin’s narratives never fail to consider every angle of a situation.
On (Un)Commentary’s final track, “One Wrong Turn”, Benjamin spins a fictional tale about a man who tries to cheat on his wife with another woman, finds out the other woman isn’t interested in him, then finds out his wife died in a car accident. “It’s all one big misunderstanding / Like dominos crash landing,” he sings before concluding in the final chorus, “Something funny that I’ve found / Is just how quickly worlds burn down.” The irony he observes here might not be as humorous as the song suggests, but the upbeat post-chorus indicates that Benjamin finds something worthwhile in this tragedy.
“One Wrong Turn” exemplifies the consistency of Benjamin’s writing style. In “If We Have Each Other”, from his debut mixtape, he weaves separate storylines together: “So I’m thankful for my sister / Even though sometimes we fight / So I wrote this verse to tell her that I’m always by her side.” In this song, he reveals the third-person narratives of the first two verses were about his family members. He ties together fiction and non-fiction to make listeners question whether or not it matters what fact is and what is fiction. In today’s age of uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ambiguity makes the most sense. The album title (Un)Commentary is a play on words; it’s Benjamin’s uncommon commentary. While his eye for detail and unique storytelling style may be uncommon in pop right now, it’s clear he’ll be setting trends for years to come.