Benjy Ferree - "Fear" (Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee)
Moving on from the “fairy tales that never come true” of his first LP, Leaving the Nest, Benjy Ferree has turned his attention to the tragic real-life story of a Hollywood star. (Why gifted songwriters keep doing this I’ll never know.) Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee Bobby Dee imagines the inner monologue of Bobby Driscoll, the fresh-faced Disney actor whose good fortune bottomed out when he hit puberty and got bad acne, whereupon he was blackballed by showbiz, became a drug addict, and died in utter dissolution at 31.
The bad news is that Driscoll’s story, rife as it is with never-grow-up pathos, doesn’t lend itself particularly well to this album. Ferree handles a delicate object of fascination with interpretive mittens – his references to Driscoll’s career are clunky, his image of Hollywood a dull Nathanael West purgatory (sketched out best in “Big Business”), and his boy-wonder swagger a little too one-dimensional to betray doubt or self-loathing of quite the right magnitude. He never quite sells us on the necessity of getting into Bobby D.’s head, and only rarely evinces that he’s done so himself.
The good news is that the album is strong anyway, more so when unyoked from the underlying concept. Besides Ferree’s smooth fallen-angel croon, Come Back doesn’t sound anything like Leaving the Nest: it’s raucous and not pastoral, dirtily soulful and twangily, angrily American. The songs say what they want to with great economy, by lean hooks and deceptively mundane lyrics. The tumbleweed rustle of the second half gets stale after a while, but everything before the banal interlude about iris flowers is as vital and memorable as the best of Ben Kweller or the like.
And even as the biography fizzles, the album is healthier for it. Ferree sketches Driscoll in broad enough tones that anyone can take him, abstract his you and his me for personal use, regardless of how they’re intended – like “The Grips,” which should be a soul-searching conversation with the mirror but makes a much better romantic ballad. Come Back is an admirable, believable record about malaise and regret and the challenges and disillusionment of adulthood – just not specifically Driscoll’s. Which makes for a lackluster tribute to its official subject but a pretty good one to Ferree, the next of the great American chameleons. Life is for the living anyway.