“Stephanie Knows All the Chords” was one of those once-in-a-lifetime songs, in that lets-hope-I-never-have-to-hear-this-again way. It was written by my older brother, who was twelve at the time, promptly after he learned how to play his first guitar chord. The song incessantly echoed throughout my house. The lyrics were simple: he “sang” “Stephanie knows all the chords, yeah yeah yeah yeah” over and over to the scattered strumming of his guitar. His voice cracked and squeaked and did all things that any pubescent boy’s does. Besides being horribly painful to listen to, the song was horribly catchy; I spent days singing the song in the shower and on the way to school.
Imagine my shock when I heard that very same cracking voice and lyrical simplicity that was “Stephanie Knows All the Chords” on the opening track to On My Way, Ben Kweller’s third solo album. Kweller’s music has always regressed, as his overly-mature songs with his former band Radish were downgraded to high school-centered tunes on Sha Sha. But On My Way reaches a new low, one that seems out of place when it comes from a twentysomething who has been playing music since early childhood.
It’s a shame that the songs here, such as opener “I Need You Back,” “On My Way,” and “The Rules,” rely so heavily on juvenility. They force you to tune out before hearing the more mature, more enjoyable tracks on the second half of the album. Kweller’s lyrics on the first half are forced and contrived, and he doesn’t try to hide the fact that he’s trying much harder than he needs to. “My Apartment” combines Velvet Underground-inspired double guitar lines with a New York City setting, but Kweller can’t pull of the jaded New Yorker look — his naivete overcomes any sense of cynicism. His time spent with Adam Green on tour has clearly affected him, as the simplicity and artificiality often found in Green’s songs oozes out of On My Way.
If you have the patience to sit through the first half of the album, the charming Kweller that was revealed on Sha Sha begins to show through on the second half. “Down” reaches the pop-rock perfect heights of “Make it Up,” combining a stuttering guitar line with confidently clever lyrics. “Hear Me Out” uses Kweller’s signature stream-of-conscious songwriting style to its fullest potential, with whimsical lines such as, “Breaking the Rubik’s Cube / Making me lose the beat / Blue jean baby girl / We are an apogee,” giving a subtle nod to influence Elton John. Unlike the earlier, immature parts of the album, the track moves beyond high school-level writing with its play on the words “hear” and “here.”
Like “Stephanie Knows All the Chords,” most of the album will get on your nerves. It will also get stuck in your head, as Kweller has not lost his knack for hook-laden choruses. But it probably won’t be stuck in your CD player for very long. My brother has moved beyond “Stephanie Knows All the Chords”; let’s hope Kweller does the same.