BRETT DENNEN > Hope for the Hopeless

“A little sincerity’s a dangerous thing,” Oscar Wilde famously claimed, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

Videos by American Songwriter

[Rating: 3.5]

“A little sincerity’s a dangerous thing,” Oscar Wilde famously claimed, “and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

Exception: Brett Dennen. The 29-year-old-a deeply earnest artist and passionate activist often times measured against deep-browed legends like James Taylor and Neil Young-rolls against Wilde’s odds and scores mightily for it, and double-downs on his unimpeachable genuineness increase returns tenfold. “There’s no walls around heaven,” Dennen sings on Hope for the Hopeless‘ ethereal centerpiece “Heaven.” “There’s no codes you gotta know to get in/No minutemen or border patrol.”

The Oakdale, Calif. native’s refined reportage-often firmly grounding heady idealism in real-time current events-repeatedly translates elusive into tangible. Let’s call it celestially cerebral songwriting. “I’m really into this kid,” John Mayer told Rolling Stone in 2006, picking Dennen to support that summer’s tour with Sheryl Crow. “He paints these gorgeous pictures musically.” Indeed, prophecy occasionally emerges from unexpected wellsprings.

Unfortunately, Dennen’s effervescent melodies and buttery vocals (“Closer to You,” “So Far From Me”) will draw lines toward his fluffy beachcomber pal Jack Johnson. Disregard: Jimmy Cliff and Jimmy Buffet share more intellectual property. Focus instead on Dennen’s engaging, largely enchanting, first-person vignettes. Fluid storytelling anchors vibrant narratives that forge and forgive, sketching cinematic portraits of maturation both charming in vulnerability and breathless in ambition.

The opener, “San Francisco,” particularly explodes with Beatnik authenticity. “I’m gonna rent me an old Victorian in the lower Haight,” Dennen sings. “I’m gonna get me an accordion and play for the tourists on the Golden Gate/I’m gonna plant a little garden and paint my bathroom blue/I’m gonna try real hard to get over you.” Few songwriters stamp coming-of-age postcards as precisely at the crossroads of possession and promise.

Fewer, still, match art and commerce so agreeably. Choosing wisely with high-profile placements has deftly boosted Dennen’s artistic integrity: Look up “Blessed,” a peak moment from his 2004 self-titled debut, as it illuminates an animated Hilton Hotel ad from 2007. “This is the most magnificent life has ever been,” Dennen coos while the screen reads, “Travel should remind you that we’re all connected.” Seamless pairing. Exuberant new love letters like, “Wrong About Me,” and the Tom Petty echo,”When She’s Gone,” beg for network television’s slow kiss on the water.
Unsurprisingly, Dennen’s calls for heightened social awareness and sense of community-see the brilliant Femi Kuti-fueled first single “Make You Crazy”-ring with an organizer’s clarity. “Too often we burden our youth with the responsibility of fixing our mistakes,” he writes on “[We] empower children to create peace now, build communities across differences and break down stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.”

At times, though, Dennen’s greatest asset misfires. Pure intentions surely guide empowering ballads like “World Keeps Turning” and “Follow Your Heart,” but overwrought lyrics cliché his message. Of course, we could imagine Dennen incorporating that pair into his work with San Francisco’s The Mosaic Project. That landscape makes the otherwise formulaic claptrap-“The more I learn,” he sings on the former, “the less I know”-easily forgivable.

Seamlessly framing the album title erases that debt entirely. Pay particular attention to the balance of “San Francisco” and “Ain’t Gonna Lose You.” Dennen employs the bookends to exact a razor divide between hope and hopelessness. Only a gamble and a lifeline separate the two. “They can send me away to San Quentin/Put me in the hole a thousand times again,” Dennen sings with a convict’s raw defense. “I’ll sing it from my rooftop/I’ll sing it from a bus stop/I’ll sing it on the street, drunk to a cop/I ain’t gonna lose you.”

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