[18 January 2010]
When your name is Mason Jennings a music career seems like predestination. I’m not going to presume to put him on the same legendary pedestal as Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, but all of their names do have that kind of humble blue collar ring, one that says as much about the man as the music. And Mason Jennings has come a long way, both in his career and his style, moving through the ranks of clanking an out-of-tune guitar in his parents’ basement to singing protest songs in front of crowds in Minneapolis. This departure from DIY cassettes to Sony-distributed discs has seemed effortless at times, as Jennings crooned out his thoughts on love lost, government agendas, and touching recollections as naturally as the passing of clouds in the sky.
His output throughout this transition has been nothing short of prolific as well, spanning eight full-length albums since 1998. The latest, Blood of Man, is the most electric Jennings release to date, weaving together his poetic storytelling with the power of amplification. That said, the basic folk/roots rock approach is still very much intact, and the stories told are just as captivatingly imaginative, if a little off the beaten path. And, as the album’s title suggests, there is a kind of an underlying theological exploration present, one examined not through faith but through the achingly ensanguined reality of everyday living, and everyday losing.
The highly-energized opener “City of Ghosts” isn’t necessarily indicative of this theme, but it does set the tone for the aforementioned shift from acoustic to electric with its constant guitar throb. “Pittsburgh”, however, recounts Jennings’ childhood through a stream-of-consciousness kind of recollection that endears more than it alienates, with lines like “Grocery stores in the middle of the night shine their own kind of light / High school halls and shopping malls never fit me right”, On “The Field”, Jennings does his very best Springsteen circa Nebraska impression, wailing about wanting the return of a loved one lost to death. “Black Wind Blowing” is the hauntingly stark tale of revenge, complete with a harmonica solo that preludes an inevitable murder.
Where the first half of Blood of Man comes easily and is more or less classic Mason Jennings, the second loses a step as it strays too far into a style and presentation that is both out of pace and place. “Ain’t No Friend of Mine” tries to capture a slightly Southern rock bluesy vibe and fails miserably, succeeding instead at grating the ears and nerves with pseudo-aggressive vocal distortion. “Sing Out”, a soft and slow ballad, is a brief return to form, though this quickly ends with the up-tempo awkwardness of “Lonely Road”. These songs aren’t inherently bad; they’re just bad for this album, and I have to believe Jennings can do better.
As a whole, Blood of Man is unfortunately marked by these latter blemishes. That said, the remainder of the tracks are strong enough to not only carry the record but help it endure as another worthy edition in Jennings’ catalog and Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records. For the most part, the electric touches are welcome additions, and help highlight the intensity and urgency of the lyrics, which are as wonderfully prose-like and literal as ever. Mason Jennings shows his maturity with Blood of Man, but also shows that he still has room to grow. The exciting part is that the best has yet to come.