Here’s guessing on Ben Rector’s musical influences. At first blush, he’s got the laidback vibe jam of Jack Johnson. On second listen, Rector’s working on that jazz-influence that shows up in John Mayer, especially the work with the Trio.
But here’s really what I’m guessing: Ben Rector’s been listening to Bruce Hornsby. Not the well-known, “The Way It Is” Hornsby when he was working with the Range on an Americana kind of feel in that “Mandolin Rain.” What I mean is that when Ben Rector sits down in front of his piano he’s very influenced by Hornsby’s jazzy jams of his later work.
2010’s Into the Morning seems to outshine 2011’s Something Like This. The previous album jumps out with its rhythms and variety. “The Beat” opens the album with a dance feel akin to Howard Jones played through that jazz-influenced Hornsby thing. The piano pounds out a urgency on “White Dress.” John Mayer’s back in the foreground of influence for “Out of My Head,” which features some nice falsetto from Rector on the chorus. Then things move ahead in tight jazz rhythms on “When I Get There,” rocking out, shimmying and shaking with just a touch of funk guitar and some nice organ work.
Something Like This, on the other hand, holds things back more, laying in the shadow of that John Mayer laidback jazz groove. It never hits a stride like “The Beat” or “When I Get There.” The album does open with the horn-laden, New Orleans kind of feel on “Let the Good Times Roll,” as if Harry Connick, Jr., showed up to give Rector a pointer. The much of the album stays in the same vein and doesn’t show the ebbs and flows of Into the Morning. You have to wade through that vein’s flow until track nine, “Way I Am,” breaks things open with a heavier, Coldplay-gets-a-jazz-influence feel. Finally, the album closes on those New Orleans horns for “Home,” a Gospel tune which says, “Good Lord Almighty, take me home/Wanna go home, just take me home/Back to the place where I belong/There ain’t nothing wrong with all the places I been/But Lord, won’t you take me home again.” Certainly a song to end the album, although it would’ve helped Something Like This to have some of its energy earlier in the track order.
Speaking of “Home” and its prayer-like quality, Rector’s lyrics can point to something beyond us, something spiritual. Back on Into the Morning, Rector sings achingly about what it feels like “When a Heart Breaks.” I appreciate his spiritual honesty when he says, “This isn’t easy/This isn’t clear/And you don’t need Jesus until you’re here/Then confusion and doubts you had up and walk away/When a heart breaks.” When a heart breaks is when we find that we need Jesus, and that’s when we stop doubting and learn to believe and have faith in God. Counter to what you might expect, I find that my faith has been most strengthened in those moments of confusion and pain. We might expect that only in times of blessing are we confident of God’s presence, but actually it’s just the opposite—the times when we’re in such need that we realize we must cling to something outside of ourselves. Of course, Rector simply sings the line over a haltingly hopeful piano, and it heads right to the soul.
On Something Like This, Rector sings a “Song for the Suburbs,” seemingly echoing my own thoughts about growing up in the sterile environment of the suburbs. It would be so easy to let those suburbs suck the life out of you and leave you with a soulless life. Rector, though, rails against that in jazz-inflected tones and charged pop soul:
‘Cause I wanna live until I die,
Don’t let the devil bury me alive,
When my heart stops, Let me go home,
Don’t let the suburbs kill my heart and soul, My heart and soul..
Rather than letting the suburbs take the spiritual out of you, the song is a rallying cry for faith perhaps, a cry to live fully in Jesus, a cry to live out our days tasting God’s love for us and for others. We need these kind of rallying cries, and Rector’s song certainly serves up the soul for the suburbanite.