UPON ITS RELEASE in 2002, Ben Kweller's stellar debut LP, Sha Sha, was met with condescending high fives. Out of the gate, the singer/songwriter's perfect pop was eclipsed by the endless references to his relatively young age. In spite of McCartney-caliber melodic sensibilities and a penchant for imaginative wordplay, Kweller's talent was underestimated, and Sha Sha was pinned to the refrigerator like a preschooler's watercolor tragedy. Kweller's youth was ultimately a trivial detail that critics wasted print space by magnifying—Sha Sha is simply a great pop album, and in retrospect, the only obvious indication of its creator's immaturity is the plump, puerile face on the cover. Looks are seldom as deceiving.
A decade later, and still a little sore and sour from all that disparaging cheek-pinching, Ben Kweller is 30 years old, and his latest full-length, Go Fly a Kite, suggests that the now fledged—yet still fairly young—musician has perhaps embraced the peculiarities that characterized his early material as "quirky" and "naïve." That's not to say his flirting with other styles hasn't produced a bounty of resplendent results. His second LP, On My Way, was recorded entirely live, and displayed a sort of pissed-off, Chilton-esque, Cajun bite that was a defiant departure from the Harry Nilsson-meets-Weezer power pop of his debut. In 2006, he released a lyrically sophisticated, heartland-rock-tinged self-titled album. Then, surprising virtually nobody, he went full country (in a Gram Parsons kind of way, at least) on 2009's Changing Horses.
Go Fly a Kite is being flaunted as an 11-song overview of Kweller's kaleidoscopic career thus far, but "fun" slick guitar pop, like the kind found on Sha Sha, is curiously being emphasized—although Kweller denies it's any kind of conscious, amenable "return to form" for fans of his early period. "I just write the songs," he says, insinuating that nothing like that has affected his creative process.
Kite is also the first album Kweller has released without any assistance from a larger label, and he compares this newfound independence to ditching a band for a solo career. "I was writing these deeply personal songs in my apartment, and I looked around and there was no band, so I thought, why not just be 'Ben Kweller'?" He's responsible for every aspect of the album, right down to the elaborate packaging (when I told him the fold-out diorama on the vinyl edition reminded me of the, like, octuple gatefold on Yessongs, he was indifferent).
What's next for Kweller? Potentially producing a forthcoming Lemonheads album, and then possibly (finally!) recording an LP with his side project the Bens—a supergroup consisting of Kweller and fellow Bens, Lee and Folds, a collaboration that released a lone EP and contributed a song to Wig in a Box: Songs from and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch in 2003, but hasn't made one whisper since. "It's just a matter of timing," Kweller says about the difficulty of getting three remarkably busy individuals under the same studio roof.
Kweller has arrived at that magical point in his life where he doesn't give a shit, and as Go Fly a Kite illustrates, we are all better for it. These days, his philosophy is clear and uncomplicated: "I just wanna rock it."