The very first time I heard Ben Gunstone sing I was struck by two thoughts; firstly that he could actually sing and secondly that, although I could hear all of the influences, he didn’t sound like any of the influences. He sounded like Ben Gunstone.
The very first time I saw Ben Gunstone I was strucky by two thoughts; firstly that he was just about the best looking man I had ever seen in the flesh and secondly, that although he wasn’t a star, he looked like a star. He looked like he had been put together in some “Weird Science” style experiment; arch and arched eyebrows, eyes that pierced your soul, a wicked grin…I didn’t have a crush on him because I’m not attracted to men and yet I had a crush on him!
Gunstone first entered my world thanks to his near Britpop experiment Johnny Panic. That band played on the same bill as my own near Britpop experiment This Years Model…I still maintain that’s a belter of a name for a band even if nobody ever listened to us. Unlike my band Ben had hit upon the novel idea of having songs that people might actually want to listen to…pop songs, catchy choruses, clever lyrics, guitar hooks that stuck in your ears and lodged in your brain for days. They released a single called “When I Drink I Love You More” which arrived right at the end of Britpop and then they sort of fizzled out.
When Ben reappeared it was as a solo artist. He had freed himself from the baggage of a scene and was now intent on displaying his ability as a songwriter worthy of your consideration…possibly of your devotion.
His debut album, “Merchant Venturer”, was a collection of 15 songs that showcased his ability to out-Morrissey Morrissey when it came to song titles; “Corpus Missed Me“, “I Don’t Love You Anymore“, “Me and the Taxi Driver” and “My Heart Says No” could all have featured on “Vauxhall and I“. Titles though were where comparisons with the Mozfather ended. These were songs that sat more comfortably alongside Dylan, Drake and Buckley both lyrically and musically.
The album starts with “Paddington” and, arguably, the finest lyrics by an English songwriter since…well, I’m not sure because they are so astonishing that they suggest a level of poetry and emotion rarely seen in pop music…
“Hearts are broken on the platforms of Paddington
As the night train heaves under carbon bleached canopies
Like an artery pulled from the heart”
Told you so.
That’s not an isolated moment either.
Each song is littered with lyrics that have been crafted and refined by someone who really does believe that these things matter…there is no “City dweller, successful fella” to be found here.
What follows is a set, a suite, a symphony of songs each of them tender, fragile, honest, raw and beautiful in equal parts. Gunstone’s voice is able to turn your heart over inside your chest, send shivers down your spine and turn your legs to jelly. Each word, each phrase, each moment makes you feel like he is inside the room, inside your head and inside your mind. That’s quite the thing. He’s not a pop singer, he’s not a folk singer…he is that rarest of beasts; a singer. Pure and simple.
It’s the best album you’ve never heard.
That seemed to be that.
One perfect album that only a handful of people ever knew about…but, crucially, each of those people also knew that what they had in their possession was the work of an English singer and song writer that could safely be filed under “L” for lost classic. Few of us thought we would hear anything else from Gunstone and then, after several years, he was back.
“Songs From the Corner of a Room” was one of those rare moments when the “difficult second album” is actually the “better than the first album” album. It is an album that exists for the broken and heart broken. “Wish you Were Her”, “You’re not the Person I Used to Know”, “Words are no Use Now”, “Planet You”, “Lust has Turned to Love”, “Four Years Twenty Five Seconds” and “I Can’t Bear the Thought of you With Anyone Else” are songs that chronicle the ashes of love, the end of the affair, the pain of being hurt, the horror of being alone and the brutal reality that nothing lasts forever.
If Morrissey was the soundtrack to the adolescent angst of your youth then Gunstone was the man who was giving voice to the fact that your adulthood was just as angst ridden and anxious. Of course lots of singers have recorded albums or songs that deal with this sort of thing but the difference here was that you genuinely felt like Gunstone was being honest, he wasn’t trying to write songs about heartache and heartbreak he was baring his soul…it’s just that he could only do it in the form of a song. It’s a devastatingly truthful record.
The good news is that a third Ben Gunstone album is currently in the pipeline. The even better news is that “Merchant Venturer” and “Songs From the Corner of a Room” are available for you to listen to on Spotify (and no doubt other streaming services) which means you can go and hear for yourself quite why I adore him.
Do it now.