Editors’ Notes From pandemics to protests, 2020 was a year of sheer, relentless chaos. And in its final month, LA-via-Toronto songwriter Jordan Benjamin—aka grandson—has dropped a powder keg of a debut record that’s positively juddering with the tension of the times. Amplifying the agitated energy of his 2017 alt-rock hit “Blood // Water,” Death of an Optimist finds Benjamin raging like a fiery ’60s folk singer who’s been transported into a modern America soundtracked by trap and ravaged by politics (with a pit stop in the ’90s to stock up on Nine Inch Nails CDs). Throughout the album, Benjamin’s existential crisis—build a better world or give up the fight?—takes the form of competing characters, the idealistic grandson and his nihilistic alter ego X, waging a 12-track battle royale for control of his soul, with guest collaborators like LINKIN PARK's Mike Shinoda and blink-182’s Travis Barker serving as referees. “I spent two years on tour with songs like 'Blood // Water' and 'Thoughts & Prayers' that were angry but very optimistic about change being around the corner,” Benjamin tells Apple Music. “But then I was watching progress take a slower march than I could have expected, and there were all these very public setbacks—like Brexit, or seeing somebody like Beto O'Rourke lose to Ted Cruz again. So I have songs on here that are excited for change and ready to take up that fight. And then we have other songs that are more unsure and critical and confused.” Here, Benjamin presents the track-by-track scorecard to his concept-album cage match.

Death of an Optimist // Intro
“With the introduction, I wanted to play out that deep-rooted fear that I've had every night onstage, which is that I'm going to look like a fool or, even worse, be completely forgotten, because I had hope in a time of hopelessness. And so I play out these different scenarios of a song that’s being sung to an empty room. It's rooted in those questions of nihilism, where you think, ‘Maybe this is all for nothing.’ It’s in those moments that this other character, X, begins to talk. And I wanted to introduce that character, and my fear of becoming him, early in the process. This was also an opportunity to do something more cinematic than I'd ever done—it’s got that Hans Zimmer kind of quality. And actually, in the midst of the cacophony that the song concludes with, I had my siblings and my parents sing along to the chorus. That was a cool moment: I got to sneak everyone into my first album! It wouldn't have felt right without them.”

In Over My Head
“This is something that I've been navigating my whole life: I've always questioned authority. I grew up in an environment where a lot of people never leave; it's a bit of a fishbowl, and it's easy to feel claustrophobic. You look around and see people around you living, getting married, having children, and dying in the same area code. I always questioned that, and I didn't know where I would end up. I've had that feeling for a long time that there's something bigger out there that I need to get to the bottom of. And sometimes that's a really lonely feeling, and sometimes it's exhausting. But I do have that big dream that I can do anything, so I wanted to start the album on that note.”

Identity
“Life doesn't have a very linear narrative, so why should my album? This song is about this identity crisis playing out where, similar to the introduction track, I wonder: If nobody remembers you, then did any of it even happen? I wrote the whole song in maybe a half an hour. I just had a whole bunch of shit on my mind. We have a line in there, in the second verse, about a ‘Mass epidemic/No mask is gonna mask it'—that was written in January! I don't really know where that line came from, but it was pretty freaky once everything started getting shut down. So yeah, this is a pretty dark one, with a really big angry drop that pays homage to Nine Inch Nails.”

Left Behind
“I think the lyrics to 'Left Behind' might be the actual thesis of the whole album. You want to hold on to hope, but it's okay to question it, it's okay to be scared. I wanted to stand for something, but I don't want to be caught in a one-man march. So many young people's imaginations have been captured by the rise of the progressive left in politics, both in Canada and America. But those ideologies have yet to take root in the highest positions of power, where so much cooperation and diplomacy is needed to accomplish any sort of bipartisan progress. So these moments make me question: Is it really that naive to believe there is a much more progressive, ambitious way we could take care of ourselves and look out for our neighbours? Or are we too idealistic, and are we not living in the real world?”

Dirty
“My songs in the past that served as a call to action have had much more of a sense of urgency—like, ‘Wake the fuck up, this is happening right now, and if you don't do something about it, then you're going to have to answer for your apathy.’ But with 'Dirty,' I was looking to recontextualize that story for somebody who might not resonate with [my past approach]. I had gone to Nashville to write, which I had never really done before. And I got to work with songwriters who encouraged me to draw inspiration from artists that I had liked growing up but I hadn't found room for in the grandson project yet. So this is a bit of a nod to Amy Winehouse and Outkast—a sort of tongue-in-cheek retro production juxtaposed with very contemporary lyrics.”

The Ballad of G and X // Interlude
“I wrote the whole album prior to the lockdown, but it was during the lockdown that X as a character got fleshed out more clearly in my head. And this interlude gave me a chance to more deliberately let that dichotomy play out where I keep on looking at the world like I'm an optimist, but he says, ‘We can't go back.’ I do one thing; he does another thing. All the while, I'm watching everyone else and they seem to have it all figured out. So I'm asking: Why isn't it as easy for me?”

We Did It!!!
“Some of my favourite pop culture that I draw inspiration from comes from the '90s, and I just love the use of sarcasm to make a point. I loved South Park growing up, I was completely enthralled by The Slim Shady LP, The Marshall Mathers LP, Marilyn Manson, Nirvana. I just loved that '90s attitude—the juxtaposition of something kind of sneering and laughing at itself, while also calling truth to something much more serious that's happening under our noses. That was kind of my intention with this one.”

WWIII
“This was inspired by speaking to fans who've been deployed in the military, and it's another manifestation of that question of ‘What is any of this even for at the end of the day?' But it's playing out in a scenario where there's so much to lose, and so much consequence—not just for those who are lucky enough to come home and then have a lifetime of pain and confusion, but for the very communities where these wars are being fought in. These countries and cultures are completely buried underneath a geopolitical fight that is often kind of lost on us.”

Riptide
“Working with Mike Shinoda is always a fun challenge. He is so precise. He's so tormented by what he wants, and what he feels is right. There's no limit to what you can learn from him on the songwriting and production side of things. We wrote this song at the beginning of 2019, but it kind of came in at the end of the process. It felt like a crossroads for X—we see the motivation and intention behind this more cynical character who's done bad things to good people and feels blinded by his own vices. It felt like a crack in the foundation of this more cynical character that can maybe lead us to a more ambiguous conclusion.”

Pain Shopping
“'Pain Shopping' was a phrase that my girlfriend used at the beginning of the year, and it's something that I relate to certainly, as I've lived out different toxic relationships in my life and indulged in thought patterns and habits that were not in my own best interest, often to mask issues that I hadn't yet dealt with in my life. I've met so many people through touring who come to this type of music looking for that visceral expression of their anger. And I wanted to make a song for all of us that spoke to that.”

Drop Dead
“If there's any one person who embodies the intersection of hip-hop culture and rock culture, it's Travis Barker. Working with him was really fun. There's just nothing like sitting in the control room while Travis Barker does a pass on the drums—it was just such a gratifying feeling. I'm such a fan of blink-182, I'm a fan of the new Machine Gun Kelly album that he produced, and I wanted that very classic kind of optimism that a blink song makes you feel. Despite all of this static noise, despite all of the ways in which the past is obscured this year, we still just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That was the spirit that I wanted to leave people with.”

Welcome to Paradise // Outro
“For this song, I worked with one of my favourite songwriters, Ross Golan—he's super talented and has worked on all different genres of music. This felt like it could be the first song on the album, but there's something cool about concluding like this. There's this quiet kind of uncertainty: Okay, you've gone on this journey with me, I've presented you with as compelling a reason I can to stand up for what you believe in, and I've also somehow simultaneously painted as real a reason that all of it will be for nothing, so where do we go from here? I think 'Welcome to Paradise' is kind of stepping out into this new landscape.”

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