Mason Jennings — The Flood. Out now digitally, 11/23 hard copy on Brushfire Records.
This is not the post I planned to write today.
This, instead: me at 19, with the poodle passing as my hair grown most of the way down my back, instead of short and shaggy like I keep it now. (Sometimes it seemed like my hair weighed more than I did then.) Drinking 3/2 beer at the Cave on Carleton’s campus, peach schnapps in Lucie’s dorm room, climbing in and out of first floor windows in Evans. Having perpetual drama with boys who were always bad for me and never good enough to love me. Depressed and wild, heartbroken and breaking hearts. Lifter Puller and Sugar, Built to Spill’s Keep It Like A Secret and Tori Amos’ from the choirgirl hotel, Manplanet and Mason Jennings.
Mason Jennings. Only one album when I was 19, the superb self-titled; the only album in the world where I know the singer’s breathing as well as I know my own.
One album and the Cave recordings. Dozens upon dozens of tracks from three years of shows, from 1997 to 1999. Spring Concert shows. Shows at Olaf, shows at Gustavus, shows in Minneapolis. You can’t beat cupcakes as payment for a gig, we’ve got no place to go: always, always the Cave recordings.
That’s what The Flood is: it’s the Cave recordings, it’s the songs of my college years, cleaned up and grown up. The title track, which has been floating around in Mason bootleg communities for years both under that title and as “Six Feet Under”, should have been a portent of this release for me — Mason did it at the Cradle two years ago, and I was the only person in the room who knew the song. The songwriting is still raw as hell, but the delivery is more polished — the defiance behind “Better Than That” (and, oh, God, does this album mean getting “Better Than That” live again? Because I will cry if that happens), the slinking swagger of “Dakota”, the open heartbreak of “The Magician”, the sweet love song of “AM Rock & Roll” all stand up, but Mason’s light years better as a player and a singer than he was in 1997. He’s always been an amazing songwriter, but then, it was all yelp and clatter; now it’s all subtle, but still so open and gorgeous.
(It’s so funny — I know so many of these songs, but half of them by different names; The Flood as Six Feet Under; The Villain as I Hope I Never See You Again; In The Field as Stormy Weather. It’s like watching someone rewrite your own history.)
I mean, Mason took a lot of those songs, those years where he had more songs than he seemed to know what to do with, and made Simple Life, the same year he put out Century Spring; this isn’t an unprecedented album of rarities and old acoustic tunes. But flat out, I had pretty much given up hope of ever having studio versions of these songs. (And I am grouchily resigned that I am the only person on the planet and I think that includes Mason to love “Joy” and wish he would record it on, like, all albums ever. Over and over again. That and “Beautiful Man”. And “Move”. And “Love Is Wicked”.)
It’s not just the old songs that are so familiar to me, though — it’s songs like “January” and “Between The Lines”, which are entirely new to me but sound just as though they were lifted from that period, only with the mature voice and more complex melodies. And “So Many Ways To Die”, which is new to me but has that same edge of humor that Mason has always had, in “Simple Life” up through “Your New Man” — earnest and true and wrenchingly funny.
I thought about uploading recordings of the songs on The Flood; the scratchy MD recordings from 1997, the cheerful crowd-drowned recordings from 1999. But it seemed disingenuous, and untrue to Mason. He made an album for me of these songs, now, new. They don’t all sound like I remember, but somehow that’s better — it’s songs I loved a long time ago coming back to me fresh. So what you get, instead, is the other stuff. The songs he didn’t put on this album. All of these recordings are from the Cave, between 1997 and 1999. And they are, still, some of the Mason Jennings songs I love best.
And, really, what this album is, for me, is the best line Mason’s ever written: ’cause others may know where you’ve been, but, honey, i know where you’re from. It’s that. And it goes both ways, here.
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