Ex-Sensitive the new album from singer-songwriter Ben Jelen, is all about love. But listeners familiar with Jelen’s debut LP (Give It All Away/Maverick Records) – a lush and romantic tribute to a girl named Isabel – may be surprised to learn that the object of Jelen’s affection in Ex-Sensitive isn’t a girl at all. It’s the Planet Earth and everyone on it.
Like most great love stories, Jelen’s work on the album began with (meta)physical attraction - in this case a fascination with the physics of sound and its roots in good old-fashioned nature. Unraveling this mystery gradually laid waste to just about everything he thought he knew about himself and his music.
Jelen’s drive to re-discover himself took him to India, the UK, and even the American South, where he holed up in the isolated home of Widespread Panic’s Dave Schools. He pulled his disappearing act - after months of touring - in hopes of catching up with all the changes in his life since his first album release.
“The first week, I found myself in a daze,” says Jelen, who was born in Scotland of Czech descent, and raised in London and Texas before settling in New York City. “I hadn’t had much time to myself and now I was alone in the woods. I listened to Sigur Ros in the evenings, Jet in the mornings, Pink Floyd during the day. I delved deeper than I ever had into the Beatles catalogue. Abbey Road on vinyl never sounded so amazing to me.”
Months later, Jelen emerged with 30 songs that explored a central theme: the state of the world is in flux and every choice we make as individuals matters.
On a gut instinct, he took this raw feed to producer and Custard label head Linda Perry, who quickly recognized something rare and unique in the soft-spoken 27-year old. With Perry’s support, Jelen found the haven he needed to wheedle his material down to the 13 tracks he ultimately recorded for Ex-Sensitive.
“Working with Linda confirmed that my sound was a more vintage one,” he says. “Not a single sample or pre-recorded sound was used, everything was organic. I found myself drawing more from the 60s and 70s than anything else.”
The album begins with the call of an Indian sitar, a nod to the month he spent jamming with Eastern classical musicians in Mumbai. This meditation abruptly gives way to the sound of a sitar grinding to a miserable halt. The pause is brief, soon revived by Jelen’s pulsing electric violin and subdued vocals in the title track, singing “feel the rhythm pulsing through the science/one by one connecting who we are.”
With this sweeping start, Jelen dives headfirst into a deceptively jaunty call to arms in “Pulse”, followed by “Where Do We Go”, a Beatles-esque love romp that asks how far we’re willing to go for love - of the world.
The questions get trickier as Jelen skids into a face-to-face with his own demons in “Vulnerable,” a song he acknowledges is mostly about his own struggle with addiction. Jelen voices his fear that the pressures mounting around him will find him “with a life overrun”. It’s an important admission for the usually private artist. That he chose to include such a revealing song on the album is just a sign of how deeply committed he is to his purpose. After all, Jelen seems to ask, if he can’t even get his own life together, what chance does he have of convincing the Mother of all spurned lovers to forgive and start anew.
He pushes the boundaries of this newfound determination in “Wreckage” – the most unabashedly romantic song on the album. A strong contender for the “please-take-me-back-I-love-yooooou” anthem of 2007, the song was actually penned as a heroic appeal to a planet burned – literally - by global warming. Not the most obvious subject matter for a serenade, but with lines like “I can feel the sunrise/barely breaking though the trees/I don’t want to miss you/I don’t want you missing me”, Jelen’s knack for the perfect swoon song is deployed to aching effect.
The time Jelen spent working on humanitarian causes profoundly influenced Ex-Sensitive. “I am incapable of ignoring what’s going on around me,” he admits. “World events often affect me as much as personal ones.” In recent years, he found time to work with the Natural Resources Defense Council, tour extensively for Rock the Vote and Live for Darfur, donate charity tracks to WasteNotMusic.com, Amnesty International, and Tori Amos’ RAINN, march against global warming, share the stage with Wyclef Jean, Marc Anthony, Moby, Maroon 5, and Rufus Wainwright at benefit concerts across the US, establish the Ben Jelen Foundation for the Environment, protest the war, and do work with the United Nations.
He also found the time to craft a big and timely album. But Ex-Sensitive is the beginning not the end of the journey for Jelen. Recording the album has only increased his fascination with music’s potential to move and affect people – physically and emotionally. The possibilities, he believes, are endless.
Perry, who will release the album on her Custard label on July 17th, agrees. “Lyrically and melodically Ben’s perspective is creative, visual and beautifully stated. He's the type of artist that will continue to grow because nothing will ever be good enough and in my book, that's what makes a true, genuine artist.”