Ben Leece was in his local record store, an establishment he visits with the borderline-addict frequency of any great music tragic. The proprietor, Chris Dunn, was in his usual locale, behind the counter, losing patience with his iPhone. “No wonder the fuckin’ world’s exhausted!” roared Dunn. Leece suddenly had a title for his solo record: “From that moment this album was never going to be called anything else.”
No Wonder the World Is Exhausted is a songbook of deceptive depth and emotional scope. The former Delta Lions member spreads his wings as a deft and poetic lyricist of eagle eye and forked tongue, wry and perceptive in equal measure. It’s the work of a writer who wrote songs on his father’s Maton before he properly learned to play, an early teen in Kamilaroi country on a small farm in Quirindi, on the Liverpool Plains south of Tamworth.
Now based in the Hunter Valley, and in possession of an assured debut album, the songwriter asserts “there’s no overall theme to the record”. But there are threads one can tease should you look. Nothing is quite as it seems in these ten impressive tracks, such is their layers and nuances, and it’s the hidden details that reveal a collection of dualities and dichotomies.
Take, for example, the two meanings of the album’s title. Is the world in a state of collective weariness, or are we exhausting it of what precious little it has left to offer? Maybe both.
These are reflective songs of robust melody and literary finesse, painting the picture of a man under the lens of his own microscope. Whether it’s the study of inherited familial traits in ‘Apple Tree’, choosing the scene over songs in ‘Highway Not the Dream’, fear of not measuring up on ‘Villains’ or a dose of self-affirmation on ‘Stuck to My Guns’, Leece emerges as a soulful realist.
Evident, too, is a social conscience. The songsmith states on the honky tonk swing of ‘Sunny Side’: “I want to see this old world from your side of the road”, and the surrounding songs confirm his keenness to understand something of the people in his orbit. ‘This Is What You Get’, a Radiohead-esque cosmic slice of country that explodes into the record’s thrilling freak out, is inspired by the story of a homeless man that sleeps out near Leece’s inner Newcastle home. Here we locate another dichotomy.
“There is a homeless guy that sleeps near our apartment building,” Leece explains. “Over the last 18 months or so we’ve become friendly with him. We’ll stop and chat, walk with him and introduce him to friends that we might cross paths with. He is skilled, educated and more than willing to work should he be able to find it. It completely smashed the stereotypes that had manifested in my head. In one of our first big yarns Allan said to me, ‘Anyone can end up here where I am. I’ve been just like you, where you are.’ It stuck with me and I started to imagine what must run through your head when life finds you sleeping on the street.”
‘Nothing, Not Anymore’ is a political protest song dressed as a scorned country take down, a middle finger to Australia’s broad denial of past Indigenous dispossession and the pursuit of material wealth. “If you ain’t tellin’, then I won’t ask, about the dirt you stole to build your house of glass.” On ‘Smoke Signals’, Leece sums up the two sides of a strained relationship with a single cutting image: “Cheap cigarette still burnin’, bitch ‘bout the smoke stuck in your eye.”
‘A Hole’, another dualistically titled tune, is the record’s irresistible power pop moment, less than two minutes of sublime fuzz that nods to the Lemonheads, Smudge and Leece’s beloved Paul Westerberg. The sunny arrangement is juxtaposed against dark lyrics. “This is about depression,” says Leece. “Stuff I have dealt with for as long as I can remember. I feel good right now so I’m ok to offer up little bits. I like the idea of hiding something so dark in a power pop structure. I feel like because it presents as an upbeat, happy kind of song it’s easy to miss, and that’s the point.”
No Wonder the World is Exhausted was engineered, produced and mixed by prominent singer-songwriter and ARIA award-winner Shane Nicholson at his prolific Central Coast studio The Sound Hole. Leece approached Nicholson in search of a fruitful collaboration. “I wanted to work with someone that could actually produce,” Leece says. “I still wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted it to sound like and I wanted someone to explore the songs and push them away from anything obvious.”
Nicholson performs extensively on the album, adding guitars, bass, piano, organs, percussion and backing vocals. Also amongst the A-list band are pedal steel guru Jason Walker, drummer Pete Drummond, renowned fiddle player Luke Moller, and vocalist Katie Brianna. The result is a classic country sound that doesn’t overplay its hand, allowing the quality of Leece’s songwriting to speak for itself.
No Wonder the World is Exhausted is bound to continue Leece’s organic rise through the ranks of Australian music, following on from the debut 7” single ‘Trace’ in 2017, which snagged him “Alt-Country Song of the Year” at the 16th annual Independent Music Awards. Leece was soon also in the Top 15 finalists in the Americana Music Prize of Australia.
Expect many more accolades to follow. Because the world may be exhausted, but it’s about to wake up to Ben Leece.