On Texas Time : Looking Back at Sha Sha
I don’t know why Sha Sha is such a special album. I can tell you that I wore it out in the early 2000’s with my car windows down and my voice cracking on every repetition of “I don’t feel like I’m fallin’ doooo-ooown!" I can certainly admit that the fact I lived in north Texas around this time contributed to my love for the record; I was but a stone's throw away from Kweller's hometown of Greenville, and music always takes on a new resonance when you are in some geographical spitting distance of where it is rooted. I can say that I continued to be a fan of Ben Kweller for several subsequent albums, and that while they were undeniably good, none of them ever quite got at the heart of Sha Sha’s particular and peculiar sense of earnestness and nonsensicality. I could sit here and catalog the astounding Pop-Rock moments on nearly every song, but that seems unforgivably obvious even if it is profoundly true.
The reality is that I do a lot of thinking about how to recontextualize art, predominantly music. When I do this, I tend to start from the end, as in “(X - Current Situation) is now (Y - Condition) because of (Z - Art), so Y = X(Z). This is not close to being scientific, as any scientist will tell you that you need to start at the factors and then follow the evidence in order to determine the cause/effect in any rational way. But the algebra has seemed to somehow hold up for me over the years, even though I am often beginning at what I see as an “ending supposition”.
What makes Sha Sha remarkable for the application of this logic is that I can’t point to an end result, necessarily. I can’t, off the top of my head, discuss anything in current trends or motifs that seems overtly and directly related to the album’s prominence among a certain group of people at a certain time (twentysomething indie fans circa 2003). Instead, I have to do the math the more traditional way and talk about what makes it stand out among its peers, then see how that tracks into the current time. This formulation is different for me because it is closer to Z(?) = YX. What is the "(?)" factor that has kept “Z” in relevance all these years, even if the relevance has been a stealthier variety than what I might have expected? (By the way, there won’t be any more math in this article, so you can put away your No. 2 pencils.)
So the discussion begins with what Sha Sha actually is. It is absurdist, for one thing. The album opens with “How It Should Be (Sha Sha)”, a playful ditty that romps over piano keys mischievously while the lyrics tell a tale of unrequited astronomical love (“When I was an astronaut I bought a fancy charm / I thought you’d like it but you called it cheap and at my feet it fell”) and other misadventures. The album’s lead single, “Wasted and Ready” compares the act of lovemaking to “eating spaghetti”, even as it portrays a genuinely heartfelt paean to both young love and the urge to leave one’s hometown. These are farcical meanderings but that doesn’t make them untrue or unworthy of consideration, in terms of how they elucidate the feelings at play. Notably, Ben seems at piece with this when he opines on "Family Tree" that "the press might shoot me down / I'm still true". It takes a certain kind of authenticity to be able to come off as "true" while literally telling your audience that you are exactly that - but let's put a pin in that for now because we'll come back to it soon.
The album is also charming in fundamental and uncomplicated ways. Beginning with the cover art depicting Kweller brushing his teeth while wearing an ear-flap cap, Sha Sha paints a picture of an artist expressing his truth in ways that pack a wallop throughout the song cycle. “Family Tree”’s earnestness is devastating in its simplicity (“You are my family tree / be good to me / take care of me”) and it’s buffeted by a barrage of bah-bah’s that would make Ebenezer Scrooge crack a toothy smile. Expressing similar sentiments, “Walk on Me” implores its rhetorical "you" to be nice, observing that “if I was in your shoes, I wouldn’t walk all over you”. The multi-part falsetto harmonization paired with the rollicking Country-Rock vibe of this track are enough to increase the heart rate, but the idea behind the song is so good-natured and unique that it’s hard to not just love it outright for its strange sense of knowing naiveté. The man who wrote this song is acknowledging that people can be hurtful with or without intent, but he’ll be damned if he won’t ask plainly not to be hurt, even if it doesn’t work. Efficacy notwithstanding, the packaging of the message at least ensures it won’t fall on deaf ears.
But there is more to the album. “Charmingly absurd” or otherwise idiosyncratic albums are not exactly a dime-a-dozen, but they’re also not exactly rare. There has to be a secret sauce here that makes it notable even among work that is similar in tone or ideology.
The thing I keep coming back to is related to everything discussed so far, but it underpins it all: honesty. There is an honesty of intention on Sha Sha that outshines any of its pure pop majesty (“Falling”) or it’s odd peccadilloes (“Harriet’s Got a Song”). The shining steel-guitar supported “In Other Words” has a refrain built around metaphorical butterflies that never fails to choke me up, a reminder that the most outwardly beautiful among us are not without problems and issues. Elsewhere, “Lizzy” might be the most capital-S Sincere song in the mix, using painfully specific detail and sparse solo acoustic guitar work to create the greatest Skype love song ever put on tape (though Skype wasn't yet a thing). “Lizzy” is both an admission that absence makes the heart grow fonder and a passionate argument that absence is bullshit - it works exquisitely on both levels and takes no prisoners.
The thing is, I can’t point to a specific trend in music and say that Sha Sha made that happen. If I want to let myself off the hook a bit, I could say that there is no recontextualizing something that is just an honest piece of work. The conventional (and I believe correct) thinking says that art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But maybe there is a sort of vacuum of context with regard to music that comes from a place of purer honesty than others of its ilk. What I mean is this: let’s say that a given piece of work is the most honest thing that a given artist could make – wouldn’t it stand to reason that the work would be largely the same whether they made it in 1998 or in 2025? In that respect, a work that uses sincerity as its North Star might similarly be immune to the idea of being recontextualized 20 years later. If context wasn’t a measurable part of its composition (because it necessarily came from a more internal fount, a place not as influenced by prevailing trends) then it may be that it's also not a measurable part of its aging.
But I don’t know any of this for sure. I couldn’t argue it scientifically, or philosophically, or in any other way that would matter. And I don’t know that Sha Sha has had any meaningful effects on the indie-rock scene writ large since it came out in 2002. All I know is how it feels. It feels like one of the first experiments mixing higher-than-normal doses of country sensibility with rock instrumentation that actually worked in the still-nascent indie-rock universe without being pigeon-holed into one genre or the other. It feels like a record that came via air-mail directly from the bottom of someone’s heart. It feels like the opening of a door into a new gold-flake-painted age of quirkily honest pop-balladeers (Tobias Jesso Jr., J. Tillman, Chris Staples, etc). It feels like a bridge between the mainstream alternative of the 90s and the wry singer-songwriter fare that was about to be a larger part of the mainstream. Perhaps more than any of this it feels like a work of supreme maturity masquerading as the doodling of a neophyte, and it kind of feels like a masterpiece for being able to carry all those things at once.
And yet, I can’t put my finger on what makes it so special. But maybe that’s kind of the point.