The Adventures of Ben Blank Tour
February 8, 2024 | Centre in the Square, Kitchener
Meet Ben Blank, roving troubadour, pale rider, patron saint of Nothing. Blank is the narrator of Sam Roberts Band’s eighth full-length album, and he’s at once a familiar figure and an unknowable spectre—a man in a constant state of creation, simultaneously ancient and endlessly reborn.
In “The Ballad of Ben Blank”, which serves as the album’s stomping introduction, the titular hero gives a bullet point list of his character traits, not all of which line up:
Full of holes still baby I’m the real deal
I’ve been a showstopper, a turnstile hopper
Freelanced as a second hand name-dropper
We’re deep in unreliable narrator territory here, but Blank’s mystique derives from his cowboy-adjacent imagery, his insistence that he’s a “six-string gunslinger”, a lone wolf moving slowly but dangerously across the open plains. But of one thing he is certain: his “heart is deafening.”
For all his bluster, Ben Blank’s ceaseless wondering is driven by love. The centrepiece of the record is the stunning “Afterlife”, a middle finger raised at the prospect of death, in which Blank spits “I’ll get my kicks on this side of the Styx.” It’s a reminder of the momentousness of the moment, a bold refutation of the future—both a joyful and a painful reminder that this is all we have.
Which isn’t to say that Blank is wedded to this dogma. He is drawn to the dusk, to the fading light at the end of a life. In the honky-tonk dive bar anthem “Bad Country”, Blank straps on the six shooters once more, he finds a darkening world governed by magic and madness:
The city was mean and shallow
The desert was raw and blistering
The valley was green and narrow
The hills were hard and whispering
“Is this the end of the road,” Blank wails, “or only the beginning?” The answer is that it’s both, and neither. As Blank notes next, “The sky keeps spinning.” Like shrieking guitars played by a band of ghosts, “The Adventures of Ben Blank” is a pitch perfect mixture of euphoria and melancholy, illustrating the middle-aged artist’s dilemma: how does one reconcile the fact that one finally knows oneself with the fact that, well, the fucking planet is dying? How does one square the fact that one is able to slow down enough to experience joy in the big things and the small, in friends, in family, in a plunge into cold water in a late summer lake, in hazy-eyed new love, in it’s time-worn reflection, in the shimmering sound of a brand new record? How does one square all this with the breakdown in civility, with the meltdown of our politics? How are we to exist on the seams of these warring realities, these battles between the micro-personal and the macro-political?
This balance, this sense of neither this nor that, this vast web of complexity that governs (or misgoverns) our lives, this mourning for the world and this vigil for what never was, this is life now in the 21st century. For the past eight albums, Sam Roberts has provided the soundtrack. He is Ben Blank, no one, nada, a channel, a funnel, a feeling. And he plays his music as the light dies at the end of a baking day, and a season of the unknown beckons on the other side of the song.