The world is a delicate balance of dualities. There are the obvious ones – light and dark, good and evil – then there are the more granular; happiness and sadness, for example. In the case of Jordan Edward Benjamin, a new one has appeared in his world: Grandson and X.
Words: Steven Loftin.
The world is a delicate balance of dualities. There are the obvious ones – light and dark, good and evil – then there are the more granular; happiness and sadness, for example. In the case of Grandson, a new one has appeared in his world: Grandson and X.
Where X usually marks treasure, a golden opportunity, for Grandson mastermind Jordan Edward Benjamin it means something else. It’s a way of dealing with the duality of being a human in the modern age.
For the last few years, he’s been leading the charge of the young political voice. Few use their platform to say such blatant and unapologetic truths, but Grandson, garnering attention ever since dropping ‘Blood & Water’ back in 2018, has perfectly mixed a new generational sound – one as easily influenced by the blues as it is hip-hop and rock – with aptly heated and targeted lines of rhythm and spit.
Now it’s time for a full-length – his debut grandstanding – ‘Death of an Optimist’. Leading to this point, after establishing his motives with a series of singles and EPs, including the A Modern Tragedy trilogy, this is a project that breaks the boundaries of Grandson.
Four words that, put together, scream a charged atmosphere. That’s because Jordan’s not only spotlighting social and political issues, but he’s also facing another reckoning – himself. “I wanted to make an album that was still political, that was still mad, but that wasn’t naive,” he begins.
“I think that this album, while remaining true to the themes of agency and power, it also speaks to my personal struggle with whether or not to continue to preach this sort of optimism in the face of such an overwhelming pessimism or cynicism in the world.”
Continuing, he explains: “There are different topics relevant today, with songs that touch on greed, and doing the bare minimum on social media and thinking that that’s going to be enough. We speak about the politics of violence, but it’s all through the lens of whether or not I can continue to find the hope to stand on stage and continue to tell you the dangers around the corner. This year has tried and tested the optimism or the expectations of all of us as a generation.”
While the world’s optimism has been tested by the powers that be, Jordan’s pessimism was building with the same effect as fighting to the surface beneath a riptide rush for the first breath of air.
“This project was my fight of where to look because I could kind of see both at the same time, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to sleep at night,” he says. “If I couldn’t believe that these things are still worth fighting for, at the risk of being the old man on stage with my potbelly, still making rock songs about change.
“I have a song called ‘Left Behind’, and the chorus is saying; ‘I don’t want to move on, but I don’t want to get left behind’. I don’t want to move on from these sorts of idealism which fuel change and that will lead to a momentum for progress, but I don’t want to turn around and be fighting for a cause that everybody gave up on.”
Which is where the central component of the album comes into play. The narrative of ‘Death of an Optimist’ is the duality between Grandson and this new persona, X, who’s sneering stare personifies the other side of Jordan’s mind.
“Am I going to continue to stand up here and tell you that you can do anything and be anything and that you deserve opportunity, you deserve to have your voice heard?” he questions. “Or am I going to be yet another idealist?”
Hope lies in the realism of what the world entails these days – the barefaced truth that sometimes evil does win and stopping that happening doesn’t come in the form of some grand plan involving shooting down the Death Star, but in a gradual overcoming. Evil has settled in over hundreds of years of outdated ideologies and systems, but the hope is rebuilding as a generation. ‘Death of an Optimist’ battles with this understanding, and thus the importance of X being present reveals itself. It’s also, however, the darkness that lurks inside Jordan, the somewhat spectator to these two facets of himself battling it out visually and audibly.
“The personification of my anxiety or my fears, or the system itself, lumping that all up and giving that identity and giving it a face and giving it a name. It was, on the one hand, artistically liberating,” he explains. “Because I was able to, with more clarity and detail, have a conversation with that side of myself it was also liberating creatively because I had never acted before I had never gotten in front of the camera.”
In the two singles for ‘Death of an Optimist’ – ‘Identity’ and ‘Riptide’ – X’s personification lives in a cinematic imagining of Jordan’s ideas, those sneering eyes driving daggers into the optimistic hope of Grandson, a dishevelled suit and Jordan’s trademark curls slicked back, involved in burning school buses, ritualistic river baptisms.
The privilege Jordan has being an artist isn’t lost on him. Knowing that having the “flexibility and to the permission to dig into these feelings,” that the majority of us don’t, at least on a full-time basis, puts Grandson in another unique position.
“To do that uncomfortable work with yourself is a luxury. In doing so in a public space, I give other people a chance to reflect on how they relate to those songs, how they relate to these characters, whether they think I’m full of shit, whether they think that the bad guy should have won. I’m trying to engage and be provocative, in the hope that it’ll be easier for somebody else out there.”
On a personal level, Jordan’s voyage into this realm began in the form of trying to put the words together in a way that was both poetic and cutting. Add in getting stoned and messing around on his dad’s piano before he got home from work, he refers to those tender moments as “innocent” before he started to “take it more seriously, as I began to get more disillusioned with how I was going to be able to have a job and deal with people in positions of authority telling you what to do.
“I found myself getting much darker. I was very lucky that I came from a family that encouraged art and writing as a cathartic outlet for these feelings because otherwise, they would have played out in who knows what ways. I’m grateful that I found music and storytelling to get these feelings out and confront them… and I hope that I can encourage other people to do the same.”
There’s a darkness that swallows all of ‘Death of an Optimist’. Aside from his usual black and white world, the reality of visually seeing X take the stage is a major step forward for Jordan’s vulnerability and understanding of himself.
“I had never allowed those parts of my personality to rear their head because I’ve always been so terrified of the fear that they might be right,” he says. “Those negative thoughts that had or fantasies of suicide or addiction. I never want to give that side of myself the microphone or give them much of a platform.
“Creating acts and being able to put on my makeup and glare at the camera, it’s been freeing, because it’s always better to shine a light at the monsters under your bed; always better to excavate those feelings. If you don’t, then you’ll push them deeper and deeper into your subconscious, where they’ll continue to wreak havoc over time.”
The clarity of just who, or what X was, didn’t crop up until lockdown appeared. By this time Jordan has already written the majority of ‘Death of an Optimist’, but looking back on the penned tracks with this new frame of mind, he “was able to go back into those songs and make sure that that holds up.”
“The introduction of the album and the interludes both give X a more clear microphone for a second – give him the chance to talk his shit. As dark as it was, and as scary as it might be for some of my loved ones to see me still comfortably settle into such adult concepts, it was frankly a lot of fun to do, and it was really freeing in some ways!”
In the reality we all live in, it’s here that Grandson has found his footing. Spearheading the new generation of supercharged voices, so that beneath the shadow of benevolent politicians hell-bent on being succubus’ of power and wealth, people like Jordan are appearing. Building a new system of chaos in which an atom of hope and sanctity to gain an understanding of what the future could be.
Grandson’s purpose has deftly built itself into serving the people. Every facet is to support, speak up for the marginalised, with the anger and ferocity that a musical platform can offer. It’s even been a way to push boundaries. In the video for last year’s ‘Oh No!!’ he became the personification of a social experiment, subjecting himself to the whims of the anonymous human.
The nature of his position means he’s in the public eye shouting against the fallacious popular opinion. He mentions that “there are days where it’s overwhelming, and I don’t want to fucking do that, it’s not what I signed up for when I was just getting stoned at parties and rapping in the back of the room… I never could have anticipated, years later, being in this position.” But Jordan subscribes to the ethos of “you do what you can, and you have to be proud of that.”
“I do believe that I’ve taken up the mantle in some ways, but for me, you know, I think Rage Against The Machine was one of the most influential bands for a generation, and I hope one day to be able to make even a fraction of the inspiration of the anger that they help speak to.”
Jordan is also looking for a legacy from all this anguish, one that elevates him away from just being an angry punk guy.
“But then I look at artists like Bob Marley, who were transcendent. Who had songs that were political, and that were angry – ‘Get Up, Stand Up’, ‘War’ – these very poignant, really political songs that also spoke to love and forgiveness and joy. Those are the artists that I think stand the test of time, and those are the artists that I want to one day be able to put my batch of songs up with and feel like I would have done them proud.”
Even the future that awaits us on the other side of this bin-fire year is in question at the moment since everything has been accelerated; culture, change, you name it, it’s been turned up to eleven. So, when everything begins to settle, and the flames have died down, what appears through the thinning smoke is a massive question that someone like Jordan has of course pondered.
“What normal will we be getting back to? And who did that normal benefit and who did that normal come at the expense of?” he muses. “I think that those are questions that are coming up in 2020 now more than ever, and those are very destabilising. It’s very uncomfortable to recognise the normal that I wish I could get back to leads to some people continuing to be marginalised.”
Citing that we need to “look to the perpetuation of inequality, and growing wealth gap and lack of opportunity for young people and immigrants in North America”, and it comes down to accountability.
“It’s all just a matter of what our priorities are, and what we demand from public officials and what the systems of accountability are when that social contract is violated,” he says. “When those cops do go way beyond, or when a politician is caught blatantly breaking the rule – what the fuck are we going to do about it?”
The echoing chasm that Jordan is shouting in to – and certainly making his own waves – can’t help but feel a bit empty. Something he’s also noticed, where X’s opinion on the matter comes into play before being swept away by the Grandson fire.
“I look at other artists who are just seemingly choosing not to engage with these kinds of questions, and I go, ‘Maybe I should have just fuckin’ wrote break-up songs…'” he shrugs. “Ultimately, Donald Trump was going to get elected in one way or the other, at least then I’d have had an extra zero in my bank account or something. But you can’t even indulge it. It’s just so self-loathing, and it doesn’t accomplish anything.”
Recognising that these days, “you only have 10 seconds to get somebody’s attention,” Grandson’s leverage needs to hit to the point, but more pressingly, it’s all about the entry to that platform – how do you get people to listen when everything is so curated?
“I understand that there are certain people that are only going to engage with it if they hear the ‘new Rage Against The Machine’, or, you know, ‘new Twenty One Pilots’, or whatever the fuck. I’ve heard all the things because my music doesn’t fit in any one category. My initial reaction to that was, there’s no one thing that you’re going to tell me to be. I started making music in the first place because I didn’t want people telling me what to do or who to be.”
The sounds on ‘Death of an Optimist’ are just as important as the vocal daggers. Without the energy, that tangible raging heart, the message carries, but it doesn’t overwhelm to the point of wanting to stand up in your bedroom, raise a fist, and go do something instead of logging onto Twitter.
But, as for piecing together such a barbed concept, dealing with the duality of optimism and pessimism, even that succumbed to some musing from Jordan. ‘Drop Dead’ – a song he collaborated on with blink-182, and all-round icon Travis Barker – came from an overwhelming tidal wave of optimism. “If I put it at the beginning, and ended on a more dark note, then it could be the story of a kid that grows up and has to deal with the harsh realities of the world,” he explains.
“But, we put it as the second to last song. I wanted it to feel that despite all these examples in the world of injustice – despite all of that – I still feel that it’s worth doing. It’s worth fighting for because who knows, one kid could be inspired. And look at me, I was just a music fan, of all kinds of bands before me, who may have never anticipated that some song that they did would resonate with some kid in the crowd, who’s now gone on to lead a career and raise all this money for charity. That can all stem from a song!”
Digging a bit deeper into the structure of ‘Death of an Optimist’, Jordan reckons “there’s a more broad commentary in there,” of us, as individuals being able to craft our own reality.
“Take any of these unjust murders of black bodies by the hands of American police, for instance. Where you choose to read about it, where you choose to get your information, whether you go to Fox News, or you go to CNN, you are being given a different interpretation of what happened to fit the narrative that the dominant audience wants to hear. And so, I noticed myself doing the same thing with my outlook.
“I read a quote that I think is really relevant to this album: ‘Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t. You’re right.’ You can look at one headline and chalk it up as a win for Grandson, or you can read another one and chalk it up as a win for X.”
That whitewater river gliding down the middle of either side features just as importantly on ‘Death of an Optimist’. “There are a lot of songs with titles like ‘In Over My Head’, ‘Riptide’, a lot of songs speak from within that tension – dead middle, really unsure of how this is going to pan out. And then there are a couple of songs that lean darker, or more positive, depending on my mental health that day in the studio.
“If I’m going to contribute to the zeitgeist, if I’m going to give you an album and tell you to listen to it, what do I want you to leave feeling? Ultimately, I believe that I should merely be a messenger to deliver a positive message, or a message of change, or a message that you know, despite all that we’re up against I’m gonna go out there and do my part, whatever that looks like.”
His standing as an artist is always in the back of Jordan’s mind, knowing that it’s his job, and doing it in a way “that feels the most fulfilling, or purposeful” is key, but it is a bit different this year for him, as it is a lot of people. “Finding purpose in 2020 is definitely an uphill battle.”
“For me, the ordering of the project, or leaning the project towards rooting for Grandson to overcome X and lead the resistance – who knows what that’s going to look like compared to what happens in the next year or two, but it felt like the most positive contribution that I could give to this audience that’s been there for years, and to these people that will hopefully be discovering these the first time. I just want people to leave feeling like they can do that thing that they’ve been holding themselves back from.”
As with any platform, the power resides in who’s listening. Jordan’s awareness of this fact has matured over the years, going from being personally offended “when people would tell me that they just need my music to work out or hear my song in the background of some sports highlight reel,” to now “a lot of pride in the different dimension that this project can and will be engaged with.”
“While I want to make as much substance and tell as real a story as I possibly can, I also am committed to making some music that fucking rocks, and that takes rock music into places that it just never gone before.”
After all, you can’t have smoke without fire, and the want to make ‘Death of an Optimist’ an album that speaks on platitudes because “some people are not going to care about what the songs are about. They don’t care about X. They don’t care about me. Whether that’s because they don’t have the luxury to, or because they don’t engage with music that way.”
This issue with being pigeonholed, being restrained by any form of an authority figure, streams from every Grandson project – there’s a life that beats deep within simply because Jordan “couldn’t keep a job because I couldn’t have anyone tell me where to be.” But, being labelled the next Rage or Pilots will attract some people who may have otherwise missed his message.
“I have to be beholden to the message; some people will only listen to it if it’s put in a context they already understand,” he says. “Hopefully I can then take that opportunity and build a connection with somebody who’s going to be there for me to ruminate on family or ruminate on change in my life as that happens because I definitely am proud of songs like ‘Thirty’ or ‘In Over My Head’ on this album. They take a much different tone and a much different perspective than any songs I’ve done before, but it doesn’t feel like I sacrifice of who Grandson is or what a Grandson song sounds like. I hope I can continue to do that and I’ll have a larger and larger platform to do so with.”
At such a young point in his career, choosing to use his debut outing as a conduit for his own personal exorcism, as well as sewing in more seeds to help ignite change, is commendable. It’s a move that sets Grandson apart from the rest and continues his assertion that he’s a bit different than the crowd.
“By [showing] my anxiety – this persona – I feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to. I hope that other people see it the same way. I hope that I have songs on this album that are successful, and I can get very flattering write-ups in cool magazines and take cool pictures for the cover shoot, but I can’t control any of that.”
Referring back to his last year which he mentions “had some really low points”, after realising none of his output was matching that of his breakout single ‘Blood And Water’.
“I was very frustrated by that and really hurt by it because I felt like I did the work and it came up short,” he says. “So with this project, all I can do is set my goals and my ambition to keep getting better, to keep growing, and to put music to this confusion or this disillusion. I’m not going to let anyone tell me whether or not I accomplish that because I feel like I did and I hope that you felt that you feel that too, and you hear it.”
Relatable points from a relatable manner, X is the voice we all have in the back of our heads. Where Jordan’s deals with darkness only he knows, the more common relation to every person plugged into the online zeitgeist is the ease at which you can compare, and quickly despair, at the progress others are making in their lives.
“If you look at somebody on Instagram, and you feel like everyone around you has it all figured out and you’re just barely treading water – that is how we all feel,” Jordan explains. “And that’s how your favourite artists feel. I sit here, and I get competitive with my peers. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to do what I’ve done in the past again, and I think the only real antidote for that is to look inward to find gratitude and perspective and to just, you know, fall in love with the process.
“My favourite part of this album is when I’m sitting in the studio, and we have this eureka moment where we can say a hard thing simply and engagingly. That’s what I hang my hat on. If I can take some of these complicated, specific feelings and make them simple – that is what I enjoy doing. Everything else after that is out of my control.”
The future has never been more unwritten, and the changes that we can affect may not be immediate, but it only takes a glance to the past to see how far we’ve come as a society to keep holding onto some hope, as Jordan well knows.
“You gotta hold on to that perspective, but it is certainly being tested right now,” he says. “More than ever, at least. Personally, for me, I’ve had days where it’s hard for me to continue to feel that way.
“These are all really big problems, and I don’t think that I’m going to be the guy to solve them. But when I rely on knowing how much of a difference I can make with just one person in the audience at a show, or that I engage with online – I think about the residual impact that that person can have, and it does feel important.
“I don’t see any realistic alternative that other than hope. Because otherwise, why don’t I just get high or kill myself, what’s the point? If I can’t hold on to the belief that what I think is important in the world is worth fighting for. And actually, that’s kind of the conclusion that this album leads me to.”
Jordan ends with a resolutely positive quote that applies as equally to his career as it does the world of 2020.
“Maybe the answer is to be patient and to lean into that ability that each of us has – make a change with the person next to us instead of feeling overwhelmed trying to change the world.”