Album Review: Benee - HEY U X
I’m a lonely bitch
That is what plays every time my friend and co-worker Rachael sends me1 a text. There are times when the short clip—only a few seconds in length before it recedes—startles me; there are other times, if she and I are having a lengthy exchange, when I’m a more expectant, and it startles me slightly less.
The sound clip is pulled from the single “Supalonely,” performed by the New Zealand singer and songwriter Stella Bennet—Benee, as she is known. The song, originally released at the end of 2019, slowly found an audience outside of her native country thanks to it becoming a ‘viral sensation’ through the video platform2 Tik Tok, and really gained traction during the first three or four months of the pandemic, when the title, and conceit of the song, resonated exponentially more than Bennet probably ever intended them to.
The reason the phrase, “I’m a lonely bitch” plays when Rachael sends me a text is because in an exchange we were having nearly seven months ago, she had asked me if I had listened to “that Benee song yet.”
I was on what I commonly refer to as a ‘depression walk’3 during our exchange, and pulled “Supalonely” up on YouTube. Breezy and infectious, as much of her debut full length can be—I was not prepared for the punchline to hit in the song’s refrain, where, Bennet, as earnest as one can be when their voice has been compressed into near oblivion through Auto Tune, utters the expression, “I’m a lonely bitch,” as almost a throw away line, tucked into the song’s swirling instrumentation and arranging.
In doing as much of a spit take as one can without drinking water, I was quite literally stopped in my tracks with laughter, and surprise.
And the surprising thing is this—that an artist so young (Bennet is on the cusp of turning 21) can tread the line between taking herself seriously and not taking herself seriously at all.
That continual, shifting contrast is what makes “Supalonley” as fun of a song as it is, and it’s the thing that makes her debut, Hey U X, overall, quite listenable—this juxtaposition, or trick, as it were, is something she pulls throughout the record, and even if a song doesn’t land (and yes there are a number of those) she and her stable of collaborators make that balancing act of contrasts seem like second nature.
That juxtaposition also comes in the form of enormous tonal and musical shifts as well, and for a song that is as light, playful, though self-deprecating, as “Supalonely” is, there are a handful of moments when, musically speaking, HEY U X is a lot less light and playful, with a sonic shift that never turns ‘gloomy,’ but is far more downcast, dreamy, and gauzy than one might anticipate.
And it’s in these moments—there are two, specifically in mind—where the album is at its most invigorating and successful.
If you go into HEY U X thinking you’ll find 13 additional songs that are as whimsical in presentation as “Supalonely” is, you’ll find a few, sure, but the album opens with the surprisingly dark “Happen to Me.”
Unrelenting in its sharp, precise rhythm, the first thing that, musically, “Happen to Me” recalled was, of all things, The Cure—or, at least the way Robert Smith can weave together a song that has dark, or pensive lyrics, but presents it within the context of a shimmery pop song. “Happen to Me” glistens along on the surface of that sharp rhythm with woozy sounding guitars, leaning into a very 1990s-inspired ‘alternative rock’ sound.
All of 20 years old, Bennet is surprisingly preoccupied with her own mortality, or at least acutely aware of it, thanks to her anxiety—all of which she details on “Happen to Me.” And she does so with a youthful, albeit dark, candor—“Hope I don’t die inside a plane,” she utters in the song’s opening line. “I’d like to die a better way.” Then, later on in the second verse, “What if my room burns down in flames? And I die in my sleep, and never wake?”
It may be a little too early in an album to be looking for resolution of some kind, or even expecting it on what is inherently a ‘pop’ record, but in a song with such dramatic lyrics about death, there is no resolve, even as Bennet, herself, is aware that it is her anxiety causing her to be concerned—“I think about things way too much. My mind likes to wind self up,” she explains in the song’s refrain. “I don’t get a lot of sleep—‘cause what if they happen to me?”
The inclusion of both a dreamy, swirling aesthetic, and lyrics that allude to Bennet’s awareness of her mental health, arrive again after the album’s halfway point with “Winter,” which musically, especially in the way that all the elements of the song tumble together in the refrain, finding the space between swooning and a legitimate groove thanks to the thick bass line, is one of the most fascinating moments on the record. Written in response to Bennet experiencing creative burnout after traveling to Los Angeles, lyrically it is a little more dressed up in metaphor than “Happen to Me,” though no less impactful when, at times, as everything comes together, creates a surprising somber, rushing sensation.
Of all the ‘pop’ leaning songs on HEY U X, “Supalonely” is, without a doubt, the best, and its inclusion on the record almost seems like a bit of a concession to Bennet’s fanbase. In interviews regarding the record, she describes her music, charmingly and youthfully, as a ‘crispy apple,’ and that she attempts to keep her sound ‘fresh.’ “It’s a fresh, crispy apple,” she stated, explaining with the amount of experimentation and genre blending on the record, people who really liked her previous efforts (she released two EPs in 2019), might ‘hate’ HEY U X because it’s ‘pretty different.’
But is it ‘pretty different’?
The tonal changes show an artist who isn’t already restless this early in her career, or at this early of an age, but they show an artist who has myriad influences, and interests, and is still trying as gracefully as she can to pull from all of them to create something her own—at times, with mixed results.
If it’s surprising that “Happen to Me,” in its appearance, reminded me of The Cure, it is maybe equally surprising that the more pop oriented material on HEY U X, especially “Supalonely,” reminds me of disco—or post-disco, at the very least. You can hear it, or at least I can, in the playful, slinky, quickly paced and rollicking groove that the song settles into immediately, and never leaves until the end.
As fun of a song, and as infectious of a song, as “Supalonely” is, it, lyrically, like a majority of Bennet’s tunes, is self-effacing. “I know I fucked up—I’m just a loser,” she sings with a strange amount of confidence in the opening line. And there are lines like that throughout HEY U X—both somewhat harsh self-assessments, as well as what could only be called juvenile evaluations of others.
It’s funny, at first, but it eventually reveals the main flaw with HEY U X, which is that in runs a little long. There’s a hidden track (gasp!) that pushes the CD version’s running time to over an hour, but with 14 songs total, it does, perhaps, overstay its welcome at times, or at least the novelty wears off occasionally and it becomes easier to see that Bennet, a talented performer, yes, is still in her infancy as a songwriter, and a lot of the material here, for as ‘experimental’ as she touts it to be, and as compelling as it is capable of being, never really leaves the zone with which she is comfortable operating in, and it begins to all sound somewhat similar—like the album’s jaunty second track, “Same Effect” which shares a very similar aesthetic to “Supalonely.” It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is indicative of some creative limitations.
The aforementioned evaluations of others are most obvious on the mid-tempo “Plain,” which Bennet admits in an interview regarding the album is an exaggeration—saying she’d never really put down another woman, the song encapsulates the feeling of youthful jealousy when a former partner has found someone new. “What a shame, your girls’ so plain,” she sings breezily in the song’s refrain. “Hope she stays the hell away—I don’t want to see her,” before sliding in to the hypnotic, biting mantra of “You went out with her? Oh, that makes me real sad.”
“Plain,” like a lot of the tunes on HEY U X, is catchy, but its pop sensibilities are slightly eclipsed by its lyrics; and even those pop sensibilities are here are among the moments when the album begins to sound a little too similar to itself.
While the first two thirds of HEY U X continually shift their tonality, the thing that this portion of the record loses is its momentum—perhaps it is just simply youthful exuberance, but Bennet manages to keep the energy high, but the pacing of the record changes drastically as it nears the end, with a number of slower tempo songs sequenced together.
And maybe it’s just because there is such a noticeable change in the velocity of the record, but it is also among this final third that you’ll find some of the album’s weakest material—that is to say those aren’t found elsewhere, either. The faux-techno, Grimes featuring “Sheesh” is puzzling, and the guitar heavy, bouncing “Kool” is just insipid.
However, even with the faults (and there are many) HEY U X is still an album that is full of surprising moments, and it manages to save a few until the end. Even when the momentum dips, there are still interesting things happening, like the swooning, druggy, near Doo-Wop-esque “All The Time,” or the glitchy, shimmery fun and inadvertent reserved tension4 that forms around the saccharine “If I Get to Meet You.”
Before a lengthy bit of silence, and the inclusion of the hidden track “Make You Sick,” Bennet closes HEY U X with the tender, acoustic shuffle “CU”—like, as in “see you,” or “I’ll see you,” as she sings in the song's refrain. The song, the most quiet and contemplative among the album’s 13 tracks, is a reflection on Bennet’s struggle with wanting to escape, or at the very least, relax, but realizing that she has to continue to work. This idea, much like her preoccupation with mortality, seems to be coming on at a bit of an early age—a musician, at the age of 20, releasing her first full-length, maybe shouldn’t already be ready to run away from responsibilities—regardless, the inward turn it takes, musically speaking, serves as a fitting conclusion to the record.
The more I thought about HEY U X, and “Supalonely,” and Stella Bennet, as I worked my way through the album, as a whole, and for this review, I began to think about the idea of the “one hit wonder,” and in the age of digital music, if those are even a ‘thing’ anymore. Like, are there artists who peak from the beginning, with just one song that eclipses everything else on the album it is pulled from—and then continues to cast a shadow on any kind of subsequent attempts to repeat that success?
The history of contemporary popular music, both ‘pop’ music and otherwise, is filled with artists who only had one enormous hit that they will more than likely be remembered for. “Supalonely” became a hit due to extraordinary circumstances worldwide last year—but what is the shelf life for a song like that, or an album like this? Or does that even matter?
HEY U X is both a product of its time and a culmination of Bennet’s work leading up to this moment in time. As a debut, it shows a lot of potential, but there is room for growth and focus, and as an album, it could have stood to be trimmed to a shorter, tighter full-length, or even a slightly longer EP. When it works, or when a song really hits, it really works and, depending on the song, is either rollicking fun, or surprisingly compelling. And even when it doesn’t work, or doesn’t hit, it is, overall, a listenable record that is not nearly as bombastic or slick as Bennet’s pop music peers, but is still a vehicle to be used for ‘pop music as escapism,’ which, sometimes, especially right now, is exactly what is needed.
1- There are three people who regularly text me that have been assigned specific notification sounds.
2- I am almost 38 and am entirely too old to understand what Tik Tok actually is or how it works. Just putting that out there.
3- On my two days off of work, especially over the last year, I have really struggled with finding things to do at home since, like, going places, doing errands, etc is either just not an option or really not smart to do, so in an effort to not succumb to a ‘depression nap,’ I will take at least one walk, if not more, during the day.
4- This was my attempt to explain, and I couldn’t really find a way to force it into the review, that “If I Get to Meet You” had the potential to be written as a big pop song, and musically, it just flirts with idea, but Bennet never lets it get to that point where it explodes, and in doing that, she creates a slight sense of tension that at least I can feel in the song.