Album reviews in certain categories have a tendency to blend together, and this is especially true of the singer-songwriter genre. Because the intent of these poets with guitars is a serious one, reviewers often highlight their poetic lyrics, compassion, and depth of perception. This means that when a new singer-songwriter like Mason Jennings appears on the scene, literary qualities, as opposed to musical ones, are emphasized. “Today, with the release of Century Spring,” writes Grayson Currin in the North Carolina State University Technician, “this young Minnesotan finally delivers on his love, offering the strongest effort of his still-burgeoning career.” Grayson also compliments Jennings on his insight, maturity, and analysis. The only thing needed to complete this portrait of an artist as a young man is a comparison to Dylan.
The hitch is, one can find similar quotes about almost any randomly chosen singer-songwriter. John Gorka, Nanci Griffith, and Guy Clark, reviewers tell us, have all written insightful songs filled with emotional honesty about people who can’t quite find their place in the world. Indeed, it becomes difficult to find a singer-songwriter who is described as “a little rough around the edges” or “not quite with it”. Songwriting minstrels, it seems, separate themselves from the crowd by subtle shadings.
Mason Jennings offers his own subtle shadings on Century Spring, wrapping his songs up as though they were fortune cookies: the outside is sweet, but once you peel away the surface, there’s a little piece of wisdom waiting inside. By attempting to combine pop veneer with knowing lyrics about the power of love, Jennings has made a valiant effort to carve out his own niche and escape the pitfalls of singer-songwriter pretentiousness.
The album starts out with the lovely “Living in the Moment”, a tuneful piece filled with the same kind of vulnerability that Ray Davies specialized in during the late ‘60s. The lyrics work within the context of the melody, and provide plenty of places for Jennings’ voice to dip and sigh. He even sounds a bit like Davies. With a full acoustic setting, “Living in the Moment” works as a perfectly realized synthesis between pop and folk. A slightly different setup governs “Sorry Signs on Cash Machines”, and while the song is less defined than the opener, it mixes emotional vocals and piano to good effect.
Such a beautiful beginning, however, cannot be sustained. The third cut, “New York City”, varies the arrangements once again, but here the bouncy melody and electric guitar sink under the weight of the lyrics. The problem with Jennings’ fortune cookies is that you can’t consume too many at one time without getting a stomach ache. The combination of self-conscious lyrics and pop technique fail to merge into a realized whole, making Century Spring a mismatch of styles and approaches. Some of Jennings’ material (“Living in the Moment” and “Forgiveness”) stands out melody-wise; others (“Bullet”) are interesting lyrically. Paul McCartney, perhaps an inspiration for Jennings’ new pop leanings, never seemed too self-conscious about his goofy love songs. He also usually knew better than to write a social message into his material (“Martha My Dear” was just a love song for his dog) and when he did, the listener had to infer its meaning (some people assert that “Black Bird” is symbolic of the African-American experience during the 1960s).
Jennings, like Gorka, Clark, and Griffith, wears his literary musings on his sleeve on Century Spring. While his pop leanings offer a bit of relief from the usual singer-songwriter pretentiousness, they also seem self-conscious. Singer-songwriter aficionados will undoubtedly find Jennings’ contemplations of falling in love, falling out of love, and falling in love again, satisfying. Others will be content to keep playing the same 10 singer-songwriter albums they already own.