Mason Jennings has one of the most undeniably unique and perplexing voices in the folk-rock music realm. It is unlike Dylan’s atonal gruff and not exactly Reed’s intonated spoken word. Rather, it possesses an ostensibly meandering but viscous and ethereal tone. It lingers as effortlessly as it awkwardly dips and dives out of the way.
Jennings–born in Hawaii, raised in Pittsburgh, lives in Minneapolis–has always blended his distinct vocal style and earnest lyrics to create albums that are at once moving and playful. His 1997 self-titled debut introduced listeners to his quirky idiosyncrasies and featured several miscegenational tracks (“Black Panther”, “Dr. King”, and “Duluth”). The follow up, Birds Flying Away, had a more decisively political motif but also beautiful songs like the heart wrenching “Ballad for My One True Love.”
Arguably his finest album, Century Spring was a lucid and engrossing arrangement that maintained a complex equilibrium of soaring piano and guitar ballads (“Sorry Signs on Cash Machines”, “East of Eden”), jovial romps (“Living in the Moment”), and searing irony (“Bullet”).
Throughout Jennings has methodically honed a distinct living-room sound, all while adhering to his instincts. But his latest release In The Ever–and first on the Jack Johnson owned Brushfire label–is a departure from his meticulously crafted songs and coherent albums. Instead Jennings opted for a decidedly lo-fi sound and experience. “I wanted to do it quickly in a childlike way. I’d write songs in the morning, record them in the afternoon and finish them up by night” he says. The result more closely resembles a melancholy collection of American folk songs while sticking to his familiar themes: religion’s ambiguity, politics, and love.
Consequently, Jennings’ characteristic voice becomes the focal point. The opening track, “Never Knew Your Name”, confronts the problem of evil in religion and absolves it with comfort, and faith, in transcendence. An interloping interlude evokes a Javanese Gamelan, or perhaps just spiritual ascension. Even as the most produced track on the album Jennings’ earnest voice and all its innate grace notes is still the most enduring aspect.
Continuing his internal equivocations on religion, “I Love You and Buddha Too”, a cheeky song on the surface, addresses his own ambivalence towards religion while embracing it as a transcendent social and spiritual contract, all indistinguishable from the next: “Why do some people say/ That there is just one way…All we have is metaphor/ That’s what time and space are for.” And on “How Deep is that River”, Jennings sings about God’s love and redemptive power in people while a pump organ instantly adds an ecclesiastical tone.
As a songwriter Jennings excels in composing familiar yet fictional first person narratives. And pairing his compelling lyricism and sui generis voice yields uncompromising charm. “Your New Man” is a playful ditty about ex-girlfriends on the rebound but Jennings doesn’t abandon his earnestness for dopey humor. Rather he cunningly incorporates all aspects of his writing (in this case religion), singing:
Right now he’s a probably moaning your name
The thought of it is driving me insane
Got to get religion just to ease the pain
Thinking about you loving your new man
The song applies his coagulating spoken word, bending it into melodies, without any distinguishable break in his tone or diaphragm–not unlike his song “Bullet”.
Jennings is equally serious about love songs. In a drowsy drawl and a stripped down piano arrangement, “My Perfect Lover” serenades about unconditional love while the evanescent ballad “Something About Your Love” is a heartache-fueled yet delicate ballad.
The humanitarian disaster spawned by Hurricane Katrina and the general disaster that is Iraq are both excoriated in the poignant but short track, “Going Back to New Orleans.” Harmonicas emulating a puffing steam engine cast a bleak image while Jennings sings:
I’m going back to New Orleans
Ain’t turning my back on this world of tears
With a head that’s heavy and a heart that’s sore
Gonna swing my hammer, gonna stop this war
Dying babies in the sand
Hanging kings in ancient lands
God on God blood to bone
Oh baby, baby, this world is not my home
The catchy “Soldier Boy” (no relation to Soulja Boy) is more metaphorical than political and the infectious chorus (“Bang ba bang ba bang ba bang jiggy jiggy”) helps keep it informal.
After signing with Modest Mouse front man Isaac Brock’s Epic Records vanity label in 2005 (as its inaugural artist), Jennings’ release Boneclouds was a disappointment: it lacked his humble insights and scruffy tone. As Jennings begins a second major label term (this time at the behest of Jack Johnson) he sounds at ease, even nostalgic, which positions In The Ever as a good quick brush up to get back his old feel before blowing us away with something great.