Anyone who loves art has probably had an unsettling experience at a museum. From across the room, we see a painting so beautiful and seductive on the surface it almost commands us to look at it. We marvel at its light and lithesome colors. Then, we notice some spooky figure or a deeply unsettling shade in the corner of this picture. Our mood, once bright, suddenly takes an unmistakable turn for the ominous. If this visual idea could be turned into a musical one, the person to musically depict such works would be Benjamin Cartel. While his new album, Gothenburg, is both melodic and gorgeous, almost every song can creep you out a little, too.
Cartel is one sly songwriter. The tunes on his new disc can often conjure the same subliminal tension as that of a Randy Newman or John Prine. While the melody draws you in with its tunefulness and catchy hook, the lyrics, often dark and disturbing, have something else on their dirty little minds.
“It’s not like I planned it that way,” says the Brooklyn-based Cartel, chuckling. “Both the musical and lyrical aspects of my songs just seem to happen. I know if you listen to some of the things I’m saying, it can be kind of upsetting. But, I just follow the muse.”
“Madeleine” is a striking example of Cartel’s Law of Unintended Consequences. While evenly-strummed acoustic guitars chirp in a chipper fashion, and a piano adds splashes of bright primary colors, the narrator has something much darker on his mind. “Madeleine climb the stairs,” Cartel sings. “It’s only right that you should choose/What your heart is telling you,” he continues, in a voice as unnaturally upbeat as unreliable. What you think you hear, the commands of an unbalanced control freak, is that not that far-fetched.
“It’s great that you picked up on that,” says Cartel, clearly pleased. The lyrics were inspired, in part, by Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the story of a man who loses his great love, then fashions a suspicious new look-a-like into being just like her). “If you remember, near the end of the film, Jimmy Stewart is trying to drag Kim Novak up to the top of the same chapel where he lost his previous love. At one point he says to her, ‘Madeleine, climb the stairs!’ It sparked something in me – this very upsetting scene – and got me writing. The fact that the melody is bouncy and upbeat, well, that just happened.”
Cartel pulls another sonic trick on us with the tune “House Cat.” The song, which could either be about a missing cat or a long-gone woman, recalls some creature who has abandoned the narrator. The tune, although all Cartel’s own, also has Neil Young’s classic riff “Mr Soul” running through it. With the familiar hook, it adds a layer of Rock history that makes the music even more resonant and timeless.
“Again,” says Cartel, “there was nothing intentional about that. I knew the guitar riff was sort of Neil and kind of like ‘Satisfaction,’ but that just seemed right to me. I like it when there’s a lot of stuff going on in a song like that. It seems like that gives the listener more content. And, if they’re anything like me, they’ll want to come back to the tune and listen; try to catch what they thought they heard before.”
Sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a song is simply a song. Listening to a hummable gem like “Rockaway” makes this apparent. Set against a synth hook and Cartel’s guitars, this song seems to be about the solace the aforementioned Brooklyn town and beach can bring you after a loss of some kind – even if that loss is as profound as youth or innocence. “It’s not far away,” Cartel sings in his sweetly-sour tenor, telling us all that salvation is out there – if only you could just find it.
Give the haunting, multi-layer Gothenburg a spin, and you will find you get Benjamin Cartel too. Your heart will be haunted by the tunes, your mind will wonder about those complex lyrics, and you’ll soon be a fan. To continue the Swedish motif? It may just simply be a case of Stockholm Syndrome. But so what? If you care about fine, incisive songwriting, you’ll be happy to identify with Benjamin Cartel. Musically speaking, a particularly captivating captor.