Few blessings are as cursed as childhood stardom, which so often comes bundled with deluded expectations, an array of bad influences, and an army of opportunistic hangers-on. Even worse, it tends to create a public image of unearned fame and fortune, making a fall from grace exceedingly likely if not hotly anticipated. Though he made a major media splash and reaped a massive signing bonus as a 15-year-old rock prodigy in the mid-'90s, Ben Kweller encountered a backlash before success even entered the picture. Restraining Bolt, the mediocre 1997 debut of his massively hyped band Radish, marked one of the decade's most notable and expensive flops—a famous cautionary example in an era of rampant major-label alt-rock speculation.
Ever since Radish's demise, Kweller has been slowly coming of age as a performer while living down a recorded legacy that's more discussed than heard, which is brutally unjust: How many people have to live with their high-school years being cast in amber for the world to disparage? Against that backdrop, it's refreshing to see that adulthood has brought Kweller closer than ever to developing his own identity as a performer (as well as a growing audience), nearly a decade after his initial false start. Building on his uneven but periodically inspired 2002 solo debut Sha Sha, as well as an encouraging collaboration with Ben Folds and Ben Lee as The Bens, the new On My Way sheds virtually all of Kweller's derivative tendencies. Gone are the Kurt Cobain-isms of his early work and the Weezer-isms that occasionally popped up on Sha Sha, leaving in their wake the first album that simply sounds like the work of Ben Kweller.
Mixing the singer's boyish, oddly detached croak with a pop classicist's ear for melancholy melody, the bright, shimmering On My Way provides the best showcase yet for Kweller's awkward-but-hooky sensibilities. Whether working up an insistent bash on "The Rules" or crafting elegant midtempo ballads on "Living Life" and "Believer," Kweller makes a convincing case for the sort of low-pressure stardom that would have served his 15-year-old self well.