Ben Lee is not an attractive man. And his fixation on sex on “Ripe” is discomforting. Amidst tongue-in-cheek tracks about emulating Jay-Z and American television, and a few optimistic — if somewhat soulless — power pop songs, Ben Lee sideswipes the listener with lyrics, and even entire tracks, about sex: teenage sex, sex as discussed with a former starlet, ad infinitum. Going back to the pop roots of his teens, Lee seems to bring some of the 14-year-old boy juvenility with him, too.
Although Ben Lee has been releasing solo records since 1994 and charting in Australia since the late 90s, he remained relatively anonymous in the U.S. until the single “Catch My Disease,” from his last album, “Awake Is the New Sleep,” got radio play. On “Ripe,” Lee worked with producer John Alagia, who has worked with Dave Matthews Band and John Mayer. His desire to write “the” pop album is clear from his choice of guest artists, such as formerly inescapable lightweight pop stars of our youth Benji Madden of Good Charlotte and Mandy Moore.
Lee has been making catchy pop with simple, occasionally insightful lyrics since the beginning of his career as a young teen, but “Ripe” moves in a different, airier direction. The lyrics are still occasionally insightful, but the move to power pop means Lee’s music can no longer have substance — the rest of the album never quite matches the quality of the first track, “Love Me Like the World Is Ending.”
On “Awake Is the New Sleep,” Lee abandoned some of the enjoyable silliness of his previous albums in favor of more slow-paced, heartfelt laments about his break-up with Claire Danes and musical versions of daily affirmations like “We’re All In This Together.” Rather than evolving, Lee seems to be trying to ignore all the bad experiences of his past. On “Ripe,” Lee picks up the pace, looks to the occasional insertion of an electric guitar and depends on major key tonality to compensate for the watered-down descriptions of his daily life. “Sex Without Love” is distinctly ripped Bon Jovi, especially evident in the vocal hook but also in the simple electric guitar and crescendo to the stomping, anthemic chorus.
Simplistic pop songs a la “Shot Through the Heart” may be all Lee can muster as a response to the seriousness he reflected in his previous album. Rather than learning from the experience, both in tackling serious themes and building more complex songs, “Ripe” seems reactionarily empty, like with the song “Numb,” his snarky reflection on trying to retain individuality in a changing, hostile music industry. It has youthful energy, but ultimately comes to no conclusion. This energy seems concurrent with the return of Lee’s optimism, although it is sometimes to his detriment. Every once in a while, he devolves from hopeful into sickeningly sappy, in “Just Say Yes,” which has the lyric, “Love is a reason to exist.”
Ben Lee’s version of power pop seems to exist in extremes. There is the overly folky song “Hungry,” with the disarming, engaging lyrics, “We get so hungry / We eat each other alive” on one end, and the listenable but lyrically boring “Ripe” on the other end. Rather than ripening, becoming a more developed version of his former self, Lee seems to have prematurely fallen from the branch of gravitas he explored on “Awake Is the New Sleep.” Instead, Lee seems to lose his singularity in the pursuit of conventional lightweight pop. Perhaps, rather than “Is This How Love is Supposed to Feel?,” Lee, at age 29, should have figured out “Is this how pop is supposed to sound?”