Ben Lee is in a tough spot. On Awake Is the New Sleep, the twenty-six-year-old Australian wunderkind’s fifth album, Lee splits his duty between unabashed pop anthems (“Catch My Disease,” “Close I’ve Come”) and more introspective tunes (“Ache For You”). The problem isn’t the pop songs. “Catch My Disease,” with its call-and-response verse and shout-along chorus, is an instant gem. But age proves to be more than just a number for Lee. Much of Awake Is the New Sleep feels labored, lyrically and musically.
Check “Begin,” in which Lee says, “I’m thinking about my heart/ I guess you’ve heard, sometimes its heavy," or "Close I’ve Come," when he says, "The universe is brought back/ From the brink of destruction/ Every time you smile." “No Right Angles” is a tepid Tom Petty rip-off. The lyrics on “Ache for You” and “Apple Candy” strain to convey something about pain and love and desire, and they get pretty close. But unlike one-time tourmate Ben Folds (who occupies roughly the same A.M.-rock-radio genre), Lee doesn’t have the vocal range or maturity, and his pleas, like much of Awake, breeze past without much notice.