There’s a lot of contention about what age your official memory starts as a young child. It’s very easy for me to say that I remember listening to Nirvana when I was three, finding out Kurt Cobain had died when I was seven (this I actually do recall, I was very sad because I had always wanted to have a pair of sunglasses like his) and kicking it with all those Biggie joints. The fact is, a lot of the important music from my youth I remember retrospectively – as we all do. As kids, we are largely the victim of what our parents decide to buy and the radio stations they choose to flick to. That’s why I have distinct memories of, say, Ace Of Base, or The Corrs, as opposed to the cool music I like to say I ‘grew up’ with. But if there’s one song I definitely do lay claim to, it’s this one. It came out when I was eleven, about the same time as our little brother had been born and I decided that I was now in control of the car radio. Ben Lee came on with that indelible piano riff, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’ve been switching back to it ever since.
‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’ was Lee’s first single, which is pretty impressive when you think about it. Most artists don’t strike gold until far later in their careers, usually when they’re significantly older. But Lee, who left school to start a band (my school, coincidentally) in his early teens, was hanging with Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth at an age where most of us are only discovering who those bands are, and was up to his third record by 1998, probably didn’t see it that way. Clearly talented beyond imagination and with an overflowing reservoir of ideas, he was one of the first signees to the Bondi-based Modular Records (which would eventually become home to Presets, Cut Copy, Tame Impala and The Avalanches) and has achieved no less than three career turnarounds in his life. The most important thing you need to take from all this is that ‘Cigarettes’ is a fantastic, dark piece of pop that everyone likes. Seriously, even people who hate Ben Lee like this song. It’s like that super-compressed, stabbing grand piano has become part of the fabric of Gen Y Australian society.
As evidenced in the best work of the other two Bens who rose to prominence at the same time as Lee (Kweller and Folds), writing a really great chord progression and making sure that it’s quietly genius in its repetition will go really far when you’re writing alternative rock without a guitar. In the case of ‘Cigarettes’, the hook that draws you in is a right hand figure which stays the same as the left hand dives deeper and deeper into minor depths, colliding with the original expression in such a moving way that your ears don’t even know what to do with themselves when it stops. Because it’s the intro to this song, but also the chorus figure, Lee ensures that you’re trapped in the web early, which sets the listener up for the typically-less-exciting-verse sequence in which we get to witness the full power of the young dude’s self-deprecating and acerbic wordplay (‘You love to watch me bake/You serve me up with cake/And that’s a big mi-stake’ – all carried off in the most Australian accent imaginable). In actuality, there’s a lot going on in these sections harmonically aside from those excellent lyrics – counter-melodies that sound like they’re being played on vibraphone, that sort of hip-hop drum groove and another aching keys line beneath that one. It all sits back neatly because you know Lee’s going to come out swinging come chorus time, and he certainly doesn’t hold anything back.
This may be biased, but honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find a better execution of despair and fleeting youthfulness than in the harmonised moan of ‘And I, want a TV embrace…’ I often tell people that I feel like everything about being a kid in the ’90s in Sydney is wrapped up in those two lines and the way they’re laid out on record. It’s highly likely that Lee, who was one step away from dating Claire Danes at this point, was writing this song as a form of personal exorcism for some monumental relationship fuck-up that was almost entirely his doing, and that many of us read the sentiment wrong. But that doesn’t even figure in the argument. The fact is that there are plenty of teen prodigies out there but only a few of them have this up their sleeve and then go on to do even more epic stuff in the future, like self-producing and releasing a record based entirely on positive vibes that wins even more awards than this one. But this is my youth. the one I remember. It’s minor chords and cycling left hand bass notes and a smart-ass who had his heart broken but knows that revenge is a dish best served cold.
Sometimes, I still feel eleven.
Ben Lee – ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’