After the celestial adventures of Mr Ben and the Bens’ previous issue, band-leader Ben Hall finds all the magic he needs on earth with his new album. On 2019’s Who Knows Jenny Jones?, Hall plotted the story of a young, shy Pitsmoor woman who returned from an alien encounter newly armed with serious disco-dancing know-how. Released through Bella Union on July 10th 2020, Life Drawing looks closer to home – Sheffield and thereabouts – for 12 brightly plaintive, character-driven vignettes, set to warm, acoustic, indie-folk-pop backdrops after its predecessor’s close encounters of the synth-driven kind.
A “cloudy thread of narrative” is present, Hall explains, but this time it’s left open for listeners to map routes through it. “The idea with the title is that the songs are character sketches, and their stories coalesce in a place that has a bit of all the towns in the North of England I’ve lived in. Bits of myself in the stories came out unintentionally, so I’d like it if the listener could find those semi-truths from the songs and place them into their own experiences.”
Vibrant invitation to start exploring arrives with album opener ‘On the Beach’, where Hall’s tender vocal and dreamy organ provide simpatico companions to a wistful tale of a visit to a beach charged with memories – one of many evocative locales on the album. ‘How Do You Do?’ brings to mind Belle and Sebastian at their dreamiest, while seeding enviro-metaphors – suns and moons, storms and tides, rain and snow, “Whatever the weather may do” – that figure strongly throughout the album’s every-day rhapsodies.
While these motifs provide consistency, a tremendous sense of DIY musical dynamism is at work elsewhere on Life Drawing, colouring in the fringes and shading the edges. “I spent a lot longer on this album, in fact the longest I’ve spent on any project in my life,” he says. “Hopefully that gravity comes across! I have the curious ability to make and move on way too quickly when making music and art, so hopefully this record’s got a bit more staying power.”
Plenty of melodic sticking power propels the urgent ‘Danny’, where beaches and seas provide backdrops for a character study about someone reaching out for connection. At the opposite extreme, the gorgeous ‘Astral Plane’ is a sweetly psychedelic lament, images of waves and shores lapping gently against the tale of a “barely functioning” character. ‘Faithful Hound’ is a country-sad ballad, ‘Minor Keys’ a retro doo-wop-ish reverie about a character blithely “at sea” and wasting the day away, all set to a waltzing-Wurlitzer melody.
Elsewhere, Metronomy-esque outsider-pop laments (‘Beast in the House’), jaunty pop miniatures (‘Walking to an Open Sky’) and pin-drop-delicate folk-pop lullabies (‘Irish Rain’) emerge with range and empathy, attuned to the earthy hopes, dreams, sorrows and pleasures of their subjects. ‘Closing Time’ sets a writer’s (“In the town, that you write into life on to pages so white”) to a reverberant piano, before ‘Watering Can’ closes the album on notes of brassy uplift. “I go,” sings Hall, drawing forward momentum from the stories he digs up.
For Hall, Life Drawing is a rich, rewarding step forward in a still-young career. With the exception of Zac Barfoot on drums, Hall is the sole player on the album’s lovingly layered recordings, his first in “a proper studio – analogue gear, proper piano”. David C Glover and Paul Gregory also contributed as, respectively, producer and mixer at Tesla Studios, while the band’s live line-up is fleshed out by Barfoot, Lauren Paige-Dowling (bass) and Tom Diffenthal (guitar/keyboards). Members of the close-knit Bingo Records community, the bandmates co-habit in Sheffield and moonlight in each other’s bands – “A nice family vibe,” notes Hall.
Since their 2017 emergence, Mr Ben and the Bens’ supporters have included Clash and Marc Riley; in addition, they’ve provided touring support to – among others – British Sea Power. Stretching back to his recording origins in a Lancashire barn circa 2012, Hall’s own musical history ranges from lo-fi acoustic folk to the skewed electronic experiments of Jenny Jones, with influences including Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, English folk music and Belle and Sebastian. “I like how their approach was actually punk but with an emotional sensibility,” says Hall of the latter. “That totally resonates with what I’m trying to do.”
Before Hall tours Life Drawing, a combined launch party and exhibition will take place in Sheffield, in a true DIY spirit. Describing himself as a “self-sustaining artist”, Hall makes his own oil paintings and ceramics, one of which features on the album sleeve. “The cover is a carved slipware plate that I make. It’s a super-old technique, so they look like old museum artefacts that have been unearthed. I like the idea that the archaeology side to the art is a nice metaphor for digging out stories to make into songs.” On Life Drawing, every picture tells a lovingly excavated story, rendered with hand-crafted charm and beauty.