Sydney synth tragic Donny Benét may be an ironic creation, but there’s something oddly genuine in his second album, writes AH CAYLEY.
Since Donny Benét's debut Don't Hold Back last year, he's been a very popular man. Sold out shows, adoring fans, glowing reviews; everyone apparently keen to show they're in on the joke and that they get it. In which case, you'd expect it to get old pretty soon. And yet the crowd at the Electric Love launch in Sydney was one of the most energetic I’ve witnessed in a long time. They danced, they made out with each other, they stormed the stage. They cheered gleefully at the beginning of each extended sax solo. At sax solos! Irony was at play, of course, but only so far – the smiles and the laughter and the dancing were genuine.
This is true, too, of Donny Benét. These songs are good, stupid fun, but they're more than that. Sitting somewhere between a late-night FM-radio playlist and a lush '80s-movie soundtrack – Benét having moved on from Don't Hold Back's lowbrow, outsider karaoke sound – Electric Love plumbs a sense of nostalgia that makes every thin-voiced utterance of desire seem deeply familiar and identifiable. This is throwaway music made valuable; the ephemerality of an uncool genre imbued with a lasting soul.
Donny Benét is one of the best-realised characters in pop music. There is a depth to this music under its frivolity that’s easily – perhaps, conveniently – missed on a dancefloor but hard to escape on record. Beneath the cool synth harmonies and the ridiculous extended solos, there's a disarming sadness to Donny Benét, one that previously peeked through on Don't Hold Back in tracks like 'Don't Leave Me Stranded' and 'You'll Find Love Again'.
“For all the humour in these songs, Benét is never a punchline.”
Penned for Rice is Nice label founder Julia Wilson's birthday, ‘Julia’ is fun but never flippant. At the same time it’s very moving, as Benét pines, in melancholic harmonies and a perfect key change, for the special lady he can never have. There's something in the expression of the line “I'd give anything to be with you,” with its knowing futility, that seems more authentic than any “serious” heartfelt indie lyric. 'What Becomes of Me', with its aching guitar, and 'You're The One', with its mournful sax solo, evoke the same restless yet idle yearning that coloured Geoffrey O'Connor's gorgeous Vanity is Forever, with which Electric Love shares more than a few musical reference points. But rather than inhabit O'Connor's numb resignation and sighing ennui, Benét is eternally and hopelessly hopeful.
For all his aspiration, there is a visible delusion in Benét's proclamations of success and achievement and reputation that is both amusing and pitiable. It’s a dramatic irony deftly handled by his creator, jazz virtuoso Ben Waples (Triosk, Jack Ladder). Whether he's rattling off the big cities he skips between and listing the luxuries he can offer a lover ('Treat Yourself', 'All 4 You') or proffering affirmations of greatness to his own reflection ('You Want To Win'), the truth of Benét's situation is obvious to everyone but him. But for all the humour in these songs, Benét is never a punchline. The joke is always there but, musically and thematically, it never goes too far, always pulling back just as it seems it could fall over into mockery or mean-spirited absurdity. It's this respectful and compassionate treatment from Waples that allows the beautiful moments to emerge, oddly genuine, through the highly stylised and highly sexual dance tracks, the wilfully tacky disco funk and the gauche nightclub imagery.
Nothing exemplifies this better than final track 'You're the One', its opening line so delicately insightful yet powerfully – and surprisingly – affecting: “Sometimes you don't want to be with me/You say you want to roam free/'Cause you don't want to be/Somebody's girl.” It's a seven-minute portrayal of quiet, dignified desperation, the dull agony of uncertainty played out atop a repeated pan pipe theme, rising synths and an outro sax solo; the sentiment somehow bolstered, rather than cheapened, by its delivery.
Electric Love could so easily have been an exercise in schlock and parody, but it rises above the temptation. Instead, and despite all expectations, it is a rewarding, complex and bafflingly well-constructed work, as detailed and layered as its many synth tracks.