New York City singer/songwriter Benjamin Wagner probes these depths with lyrical nuance and melodic faculty in his extraordinary new album, “What’s Left Behind.” The 11 songs reflect the zeitgeist: entropy, decadence and decay. Things fall apart. The center will not hold.
“Everything around you,” Wagner sings in the album-opening stomper, “Walls,” “is eventually bound to break.”
These are tales of flooded towns (“Storm King”), broken dreams (“Better Off”), collapsed cities (“Walls”), and shattered lives (“Broken”). This is real, dark stuff – love, loss, compromise, and concession – all renderer in a major key.
Still, embedded in nearly every song is the steady discipline of hope.
“I’m broken in a thousand pieces,” Wagner sings in “Broken.” “Mended where there once was weakness, and stronger every day.”
Embedded in nearly every song is relentless resilience.
“Because you know there is a light,” Wagner reminds us in “Daylight Follows. “And the day always follows the night, follows the day.”
“And all that we can see,” Wagner whispers amidst the wreckage of the title track, “tomorrow.”
Bruises heal. The sun rises. And we find our way through the sound.
From tracking at Jeff Berner Studio G in Brooklyn, to mixing at Jon Locker’s Sonic Factory Studios in Des Moines, this was Wagner’s guiding principle: deep and simple decisions, tasty and timeless choices.
This was the ethos for the players as well: Grand Canyon’s Casey Shea and The Nadas’ Mike Butterworth and Jason Walsmith on harmonies; Downstate Darling’s Chris Abad on guitars and vocals; stalwart bandmates Tony Maceli on bass; and Jamie Alegre on drums; Jamie Leonhart (vocals); James Biehn (guitars); Neil Stoffregen (keyboards); Andy Wagner (guitar and keyboards); Patrick Riley (cello); Berner (guitars); Locker (bass and keyboards) and brother Will (drums) all turn in tasty, timeless performances.
Described by Entertainment Weekly as a “fuzz-guitar blast,” by Michael Stipe as a “future superstar,” and by legendary WFUV-DJ Vin Scelsa as simply “extraordinary,” Wagner has been churning up raucous, sing-along melodies for more than twenty years. Like Jason Isbell, David Gray or Pete Yorn, he just as adeptly takes a more haunting, contemplative tact.
Born in Iowa City, Iowa, Wagner moved five times before his tenth birthday. When his parents divorced, Wagner moved to Philadelphia. Growing up there in the 80s, he recalls listening, transfixed, to top forty radio, loving everything from Hall & Oates to Phil Collins, to Tom Petty and Duran Duran.
“My brother brought R.E.M.’s ‘Reckoning’ home from college,” Wagner explains. “That changed everything. It opened the door to Velvet Underground, Big Star, and on and on and on.”
Wagner’s been working the New York club scene since 1996, treading legendary stages (Mercury Lounge, Sin-e, CBGB’s, Brownie’s) and calling the venerable Rockwood Music Hall (where he met his wife of 12 years), home.
He has toured throughout the Northeast and Midwest (often with Iowa pals, The Nadas), and released a dozen EPs and LPs, including include 2016’s “Great Lakes,” 2008’s “The Invention of Everything Else,” 2002’s “Almost Home,” and 2001’s “Crash Site.”