On his first four albums, Brendan Benson proved that he could balance his classicist approach to composition with a thoroughly modern point of view that was always guarded in its optimism. Unfortunately, Benson loses that balance on What Kind of World, toppling headlong into some dire, dreary singer-songwriter territory. It simply isn't a style that suits Benson, and the bulk of the album is mired in awkwardly written lyrics and labored melodies that never quite resolve into actual hooks.
"I haven't seen my friends in a while/I never laugh and hardly ever smile," Benson sings on the title track, which opens the album and sets the dour tone right from the get-go. It's not that misery can't make for great pop music, but it doesn't here. There's an effective crescendo as Benson launches into the song's chorus, but the line Benson repeats, "I take it too hard/What kind of world," is just too inert to make for any kind of a hook or give any specific context to the song's threadbare narrative.
"Bad for Me," an inexplicable choice for the set's lead single, is far worse, a minor-key piano ballad that plays as a tedious dirge during its verses and that exposes Benson's limitations as a vocalist. It's a song that someone like Rufus Wainwright or Regina Spektor could pull off, but Benson's voice is comparatively thin, and he flounders when trying to sell a cabaret-style torch song. While it might be admirable on some level that Benson is attempting to expand his repertoire beyond the familiar aesthetic of his previous albums, songs like "Bad for Me," the garage-rock inspired "Keep Me," and the half-rapped "Pretty Baby" all grossly miscalculate what it is that Benson actually does well.
There's very little power behind the power-pop here. The out-of-tune guitars turn "Light of Day" into a sludgy morass of a song instead of the punchy, radio-ready track its structure suggests it could have been, while "Thru the Ceiling" unfavorably recalls the tunelessness and overwrought distortion of the post-grunge era. The album's only standout melody comes on the country-inflected "On the Fence," a co-write with Pistol Annies' Ashley Monroe, who provides a lovely vocal harmony. The remainder of What Kind of World is a strangely rockist album that ignores the importance of hooks and melodies and then makes the mistake of equating lo-fi production with seriousness.