There was a time when Ben Lee’s celebrity status was bestowed upon him more for his relationship with actress Claire Danes (My So-Called Life) than for his impressive music career. But it’s not his fault that the tabloids kept him in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. While reporters and photographers chased the couple to beaches and other locations, Lee continued to release albums-with little fanfare and with little recognition from the general music-buying population-as he had been since his early teens. First, with the Australian band Noise Addict; then, solo. It was not until his breakup with Danes in 2003 that the general public could step back and acknowledge what music industry insiders and indie rock aficionados had known all along: Lee was some kind of prodigy. It’s no wonder that Noise Addict drew attention from the likes of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and The Beastie Boys’ Mike Diamond.
Lee launched his solo career at the age of 16 with the album, Grandpaw Would. Ten years later he recorded Awake Is the New Sleep, clearly his most accomplished yet accessible effort and also perhaps the very first spiritually literate indie rock album ever. It’s not clear whether the spiritual angle was a conscious decision, but it’s safe to assume that Lee’s friendship to Indian spiritual teacher Narayani Amma was a major influence on this, his fifth solo work.
However, listeners who would knowingly shy away from albums with a spiritual bent should have no fear. Awake Is the New Sleep is unpretentious and filled with clever lyrics and irresistible pop hooks. Lee and his collaborators (which include multi-talented musician Lara Meyerratken and actor/former Phantom Planet drummer Jason Schwartzman) have taken special care to make sure each song has its own unique sound and style, making for a very eclectic blend of music.
The album, of course, has its up tempo radio-ready hits, such as the bass-drum happy “Catch My Disease” (“Your body’s a dream that turns violent”), the toe-tapping “Gamble Everything for Love” (“Make a list of the things you need/Leave it empty/Except for number one, write love/Gamble everything”), and the head-bopping “Into the Dark” (“I’m feeling better since I surrendered/You can’t climb ’til you’re ready to fall/You’re not a land mine, you’re not a gold mine/No, you’re not mine at all”).
But Lee’s more introspective tracks linger long afterward. “Begin” describes a philosophical walk through New York City. (Lee, an Australian, now calls New York his home.)
I’m walking down Broadway
Each footstep is a new love letter
I’m trying to make eye contact
With each and every stranger that I pass
I’m thinking about the city
It’s living proof people need to be together
I’m thinking about how I just wanna open up
And give and give and give
Despite a heart full of longing, Lee finds comfort in some kind of higher power. It’s perhaps this faith that fuels the album’s first track, “Whatever It Is,” in which he tells us to “Just do it/Whatever it is.”
Lee wears his spiritual heart on his sleeve most plainly in the earnest and heartfelt “We’re All in This Together.” He manages to draw from quantum physics and new age philosophy:
I’m made of atoms, you’re made of atoms
And we’re all in this together
And long division just doesn’t matter
‘Cause we’re all in this together
At recent concerts, Lee closed the evening with this song, accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar and without the aid of a microphone. Standing on a chair in the front row, encouraging the audience to repeat “We’re all in this together” over and over again, it’s enough to turn even the most cynical audience member into a true believer.