Ben Kweller is a hugger. I’m more of a “nieces only” guy in that regard, but Ben is so earnest, so completely without pretense, and so apparently pleased to see me that we embrace. And that’s OK. We’ve met before. Two years ago we attended a Mets-Astros game together, a Shea Stadium contest that tore at the very allegiance of the Texas native and Brooklyn transplant. But like a kid on a weekend outing with his divorced father, BK (as he’s known to his friends, which pretty much includes anyone he’s ever met) wore his Mets jacket, and such was the bounce in his step upon entering the National League’s ugliest stadium that I was surprised he didn’t bring along his glove.
Come to think of it, he hugged me then, too.
Ben Kweller is also something akin to a musical whiz kid. Ten years ago he signed his first major-label deal as leader of the ill-fated alt-rock band Radish—as a 15-year-old. And if that doesn’t make you feel a little lazy, or at least like a late bloomer, know that he played every note on every instrument on his recently released fourth solo album, conveniently titled Ben Kweller, a sugary sweet bowlful of Rundgren-esque, piano-laden pop. In fact, it’s so keyboard-friendly that when Kweller sings, “After that train comes to take me away/Pick up that guitar,” his escape is actually propelled by yet another piano.
After listening to this new one, though, the former English instructor in me wants to throttle the wunderkind for his grammatically incorrect refrain “Since 15/I have ran everywhere I could run” and strangulate his urge to compose such dreadful danglers as “Haven’t seen that boy in seven years/Since out of high school I dropped.” But now that we’re face to face (or side by side in the backseat of a Lincoln Town Car, as it were), I don’t. I can’t. There is such a heartfelt exuberance in damn near everything Ben Kweller does that I’m scared that, with my criticism, I might kill something creative, something life-affirming. The guy may be 25 now, but in person he looks and sounds like he could still be in junior high, like those guys you hung out with behind the gym hoping to catch one last cigarette before the homeroom tardy bell rang, the type of too-cool-for-school smokers who consistently finish sentences with dude and render the word man as a nearly prayerful three-syllable exhortation of augmented agreement.
With such adolescent abandon in evidence, maybe it’s not all that surprising that Kweller considers “Thirteen,” a full-fledged coming-of-age ballad and the last song written for his new record, the centerpiece of this, his most personal release yet. After all, one of Big Star’s best songs ever, also called “Thirteen,” is an against-all-odds successful rendition of love from a 13-year-old’s perspective. Ben channels that perspective on his own tune, like the line “Had passionate make-outs/With passionate freak-outs,” so uniquely Ben Kweller that it deserves its own copyright. But at least in terms of rock ‘n’ roll, the boyish BK is an old soul, raised on his parents’ record collection.
“It really goes back to me being eight years old, staring at my father’s turntable, and listening to ‘All You Need Is Love,’ ” Kweller says. “I would listen to that over and over again. It would make me cry. I didn’t know why I was crying, but it was so beautiful I said to myself at eight, I said, ‘I want to do this. I want to make someone else cry. I want to make music like this.’ ”
If he has, he had some help. Kweller’s wife, Liz, apparently also serves as editor and muse. There’s “Lizzy” (off 2002’s Sha Sha) of course, and more recently, the muchly tender “Until I Die,” “Magic,” and most notably, “Thirteen.” Kweller met his future spouse when he was 17 (she was 22), and they’ve been together ever since. But obviously, despite BK’s seemingly eternal youthfulness, they were not a couple during his earliest teenage years. So why 13? “Her birthday is October 13,” he says. “And we got married September 13. It’s a real lucky number for us.” (Incidentally, the studio take they used? Number 13.)
“The trigger for this song was Liz,” says Kweller. ” ‘Thirteen’ was originally not about love at all. It was about my old acoustic guitar that I bought in San Francisco. And you know, originally the verse was, ‘It’s been in the rain/It’s been on the mountain/It’s been around the fire.’ ”
By the way, BK is singing now. He’s singing the old lyrics to a brand-new song in the back of a Lincoln Town Car. And though this is a little strange, to be sung to in the back of a Lincoln Town Car, the moment doesn’t veer into the truly awkward lane thanks to the pillar of guilelessness that is Ben Kweller.
(Still, as he sings his song about an old guitar, I can’t help but think of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon song about his dog, “Old King,” and how that one might’ve been better served if Young had kept it in his pocket.)
“And then I think the chorus was like, ‘This old guitar of mine,’ ” Kweller continues.
“And I was playing it at the piano, and from the other room Liz was like, ‘That’s an awesome song. I love that. You’ve got to, like, work on that.’ I was already in the studio making my album with these 11 songs, and she was like, ‘That’s a beautiful song.’ She said, ‘But I don’t think it should be about your guitar. It’s too pretty. You should make it be something more just real and hard-hitting.’ ”
God bless Liz, you know, because guys, even musical whiz kids, just shouldn’t write songs about their guitars.
“I was like, ‘You’re right,’ ” Kweller says. “And so that day I went in to work and just started playing around with it and just changed ‘It’s been in the rain’ to ‘We’ve been in the rain.’ I guess that’s an example of how she affects me and how big her importance is and her inspiration, and so that’s what got me thinking like, ‘Holy shit. This song’s about Liz. It’s about us being together for eight years and her being by my side for everything, for all the ups and downs of our life and my career. She was with me from day one.’ It’s the most important song I wrote, as far as I’m concerned. It really paints such a picture, you know. You can really get a sense of this relationship.”
A relationship, one assumes, that doesn’t suffer from a lack for hugs.
Ben Kweller plays Webster Hall Friday and Saturday night. bowerypresents.com