album review: mason jennings — always been

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Mason Jennings’ newest album, Always Been, takes its title from track 2, “Patti & Robert”, where the phrase is a repeating chorus; the song itself was inspired after Mason met Patti Smith at a benefit concert in New York City and read Just Kids while flying back to Minnesota. So basically that’s a sentence that summarizes about six words that make me weak in the knees: Patti Smith, Mason Jennings, Just Kids. The chorus is gorgeous: I hear the story that you tell / It gives me strength it makes me well / It lets me know we’ve always been / always been always been. It’s a heartbreakingly lovely song about the intense artistic relationship between Smith and Mapplethorpe — oh baby let go of your pain give it all to me — and the charge that Mapplethorpe left Smith with, to write their story. Mason tackles it with an intense and intimate care, and always been is a phrase that really resonates with me right now, for reasons that I may or may not tell you later on. Always been in relationship to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, particularly. And Mason is my first best favorite, the songwriter of my heart, the singer whose first record I’ve listened to so many times I literally know where he audibly breathes on most of those eight songs.

So this album, yeah? Kryptonite for me. Hard to hear with an objective ear.

Despite that warning, I tried, and I think, objectively, that this is one of the strongest records Mason Jennings has written and released in quite a while. It doesn’t stretch his songwriting, particularly — he’s already demonstrated an ability to write a sharp-eyed and compassionate song about someone who’s gone with 2004’s “Ballad of Paul and Sheila” — or his sound, but it’s such a solid set of songs that are so distinctively Mason that as a whole piece, it seems to transcend any individual song flaws (of which there are few): “Lonely Street”, the opener, has a skip to its melody that reminds me of nothing so much as it reminds me of “Better Than That” or “Joy”; “Dreaming” and “Instrument” are simple love songs, with the established then later altered style verses that Mason has used before in songs like “The Light”. They’re lonely love songs, like I noted when I wrote about Minnesota, and they’re all over this record. “Number of the Sun” pins it down most clearly, the theme of lost and found loves that Patti and Robert’s story tells firsthand, with its opening lines and later heartbreaking longing:

i made the mistake of my life
when i left you crying on the bed that night
i figured on the second try
time is a thistle and the bullets fly

everyone loves someone the most
everyone loves someone the most

Mason’s voice isn’t for everyone; the Ex and my buddy Max used to — probably still do! — mock his odd warble unflinchingly, and it’s not without merit, their mocking. But there’s something about the way he uses his voice — some elided words, some places where he stretches into a smoother tone at the end of a rough line — on Always Been that’s out of Mason’s comfort zone, too. It’s a change and a growing up, though Mason’s certainly already grown.

“So Good” opens with a few seconds of music so familiarly “California Part 2” that I nearly choked on my own intake of breath, and I feel like this one of the reasons that Always Been is so strong as a whole record, to me. It goes back to places that Mason left a long time ago, and it takes the sounds and feelings of those places — like i miss the ocean — and puts them into the context of Mason grown up, Mason with his wife and his songs, not Mason and Chris Stock and Rob Skoro playing to us in the Cave, us barely out of our teens and Mason and Chris and Rob not much older than children themselves. it’s so good to wake up in the morning and want to throw your arms around the world, Mason sings, and that is the other core that runs through this album: the joy that growing up can bring you. The peace, after heartbreak. The happiness of existence.

“Wilderness” embraces the demons with all their claws, embraces this life with all its flaws. I love “Patti & Robert”, but “Wilderness” is probably the best song that Mason has written in years; the most fully-formed, the most honest, and the most painful of all his talented writing. I’ve certainly spent a lot of this year facing my demons head on, and also running from them — for Mason to write that song for me, the way he always has, the way his records have always confirmed things I knew or clarified decisions I couldn’t make, it’s here in spades. It’s what keeps Mason Jennings at the top of my most beloved musicians list, where he’s been since 1999. The kryptonite song about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; the back to back punch of owning up to your flaws and fears in “Wilderness” and reconnecting with someone you love but lost in “Brand New Old Friend” are the songs that rattle me, soothe me, comfort me, move me forward.

There’s so much on this record that’s about finding something you’ve lost, or been missing; “Rainboots” fills that in, a skittering and stripped down song that feels, like “Lonely Street”, like a lot of the early early songs that turned up on The Flood a few years ago. It’s a little hyperactive, a little echoing, and all about finding something strange and special somewhere unexpected. “Just Try” closes the album with a plea to just try, a barely-there ukelele line, and Mason’s cheerful whistle. just try and say that this happens every day: every day magic, the ways that Mason makes my heart ache, finding true love in unexpected places.

It’s a simple album; the lush strings and thick backing vocals that pepper tracks don’t distract from the fact that this songwriting is stripped down and right out there in the open. It’s a beautiful simple album, the slightly goofy tracks like “Lonely Street” and “Rainboots” balancing the intensity of “Patti & Robert” and “Witness”, the most electric song on the record. Mason’s songwriting always holds my heart in his hands, but he’s always managed to never crush it, only lift it up, with his songs. Always Been does the same thing, and it does it in the ways that Mason is the best.

“It gave me that feeling in my chest that I just have to create and try to bring some kind of beauty into this world. Those two didn’t even know how to do it, really. They just did it and made it work.” — Mason on Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

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