For the ‘60s generation and their acolytes, the words “Be Here Now” evoke the teachings of Baba Ram Dass and enlightenment Buddhism. Ram Dass may still be alive and lecturing, but thanks to a catchy new song by Mason Jennings, contemporary audiences will begin equating the phrase with the Minnesota-based musical seeker of wisdom. The lead track and first single from Jennings’ much anticipated new disc already has serious buzz. Jennings’ first release on a major label, Glacial Pace (a Sony imprint headed by Modest Mouse’s Isaac Brock), promises to be this year’s alternative folk breakthrough, following the footsteps of Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart into the record collections of indie hipsters.
Jennings says took his inspiration from Ram Dass’ classic text. Both works share the same existential truth: everything that has happened or will occur exists already in the present moment. Ommmm. If this sounds like rehashed George Harrison, the comparison ends there. The Twin Cities philosopher’s voice much more resembles that of Beatle John Lennon. Jennings’ achy intonations eerily recall that of the Lennon circa Double Fantasy. When Jennings sings, “You-oo are the lo-ove of my life”, one can hear echoes of Lennon’s “Starting Over”. This may be intentional, as the chorus of “Be Here Now” repeats the lyric “Sun comes up and we start again”, which is thematically linked to Lennon’s motif of love and life being “Just like starting over”. Or this may just be coincidental. No matter. In the eternal being, all songs are one.
If that sounds snide, okay it is snide, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true, or even more appropriately that Jennings believes this is true. His lyrics frequently address the paradox that everything is one thing, including what it isn’t (i.e. God is everything and God is nothing). Consider the words to “Some Say I’m Not”, which are delivered over an East Indian raga rhythm:
Some call me Allah, /
Some call me Dao, /
Some call me Buddha, /
Some call me now, /
Some call me Jesus, /
Some call me God, /
Some say I’m reason, /
Some say I’m not.
Jennings delivers these lines earnestly, but he doesn’t preach as much as question in his search for truth. He may not share Lennon’s atheism (i.e. the former Beatle’s famous aphorism “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”), but the Midwestern Brahmin shares his healthy skepticism, as evidenced by the disc’s final tune, “Jesus Are You Real”.
Although the album is deeply spiritual in nature, not all the songs share this as an overt theme. Several of the best songs concern the mystery of human relations. The tender despair of “Moon Sailing on the Water” lovingly captures the emotions of breaking up. “Jackson Square” tells the story of a pair of loners who find something special together, only to have it mysteriously disappear. Jennings narrates a beautiful story about the magic and power of a parent’s love for a child in “If You Ain’t Got Love”. Jennings knows how to convey the sense of grace that results when people are faced with the enigma of feelings beyond their control.
This talent serves him well on all the songs, whether Jennings sings about God’s devotion or that of peoples’ passions for each other. He does this musically through his acoustic guitar playing. He strums and fingers the strings the way one caresses a lover or perhaps prays to the Lord. Don’t let the attention paid to the transcendental lyrics fool you: this Twin Cities guitarist is an extraordinary player who dazzles through the charm and eloquence of his fret work. The fact that he doesn’t draw attention to this through speed or pronounced precision only makes the depth of his genius more telling. He enraptures the listener without the need for gimmicks or tricks.
Lyrically Jennings combines strength and delicacy in a quirky way that bespeaks the awkwardness of all emotions. While his words can be poetic (“You taste like wine, / Battle smoke, / And something crying”) or clunky (“I am the gentlest hammer, / Coming down down ‘til I break through”), his guitar work is consistently lovely. This makes Jennings always worth listening to. Even if one sometimes disparages his sentiments, his music speaks louder than words.