Deep Impact

Mason Jennings listens to Wings, burns incense

You think you know Mason Jennings. The serious-minded, solitary guy-with-guitar. The lithe-limbed, puppy-dog-eyed bringer of joy to the ladies. A righteous lefty and purveyor of paperback Eastern philosophy, equally beloved by bar boozers and sensitive types, tapehead-friendly and tagged "the next Dave Matthews."

Sure, Jack. Now take a listen to Century Spring (Architect). While its theme--love, in its many guises--is familiar, much is unexpected. Ever heard Mason Jennings tickle the ivories? Crack wise? Check out your girlfriend's thighs? It's all here. The broadened sound emphasizes piano and vocal harmonies, while the songs are fighting trim: Flashing past at an even 32 minutes, it gets to the point faster than a freshly sharpened No. 2. The album opens with the radio-ready "Living in the Moment," eases into the lilting "Sorry Signs on Cash Machines" (which sounds a little like Wilco's "She's a Jar"), then surges forward on the fuzzy riff of "New York City." A stroll through the introspective piano pop of "Dewey Dell" and "Forgiveness" leads to the guileless title cut. Then just before things bog down, Jennings breaks back with the goof-hop "Bullet" and the pleading "Killer's Creek." The disc closes with "East of Eden" and "Adrian," both brooding, beautifully written guitar ballads.

The release of Century Spring caps an eventful 18-month period. In that interval--which dates to the fall 2000 debut of his second album, Birds Flying Away--Jennings toured incessantly; this winter he played on the West Coast to the largest crowds of his life. Those shows and increased press coverage added significantly to his fan base (the first pressing of Century Spring is four times greater than that of Birds), and by necessity changed the ways he interacts with listeners. "It's to the point where it's definitely better for me to just worry about the music," says the man who once kept a diary on his Web site and published his home address and phone number in the liner notes of his first album.

But those aren't the only changes. Drummer Edgar Oliveira quit (Noah Levy plays on Century Spring); Jennings hired a manager, booking agent, publicist, and radio promoter, signed a distribution deal, and got engaged. And he kept writing at a breakneck pace--so quickly that by the time he entered the studio, he'd already tired of tunes he penned last spring.

The sound of new songs like "Century Spring" and "Forgiveness" suggests that he also listened to a whole lot of post-Beatles John and Paul records. Is this the same Mason Jennings who, prior to the release of Birds Flying Away, told me that he listened only to jazz, to "challenge" himself? "If I listen to, say, John Lennon all day," he said then, "I'm gonna start sounding like that. And who needs that? He already does it perfect."

Now, Jennings can only laugh when I read back that old quote to him. "I wasn't listening to the Beatles," he recalls from his Minneapolis home, "and then all of a sudden, accidentally, I heard Wings. I was like, 'I can listen to Wings. I can sneak this.' So I probably listened to Wings a million times, and then I broke down and bought [Lennon's Double Fantasy], and I started listening to that like crazy. I guess I felt like loosening up."

The lighter touch is welcome in the wake of Birds Flying Away. At its worst, that disc proved that an ability to rhyme does not make poetry of everything one writes (um, "Sleeping in a cherry tree/High above a monast'ry"?). It also illustrated that an interest in radical politics does not equal understanding (would Huey Newton harmonize to "Black Panther/Fight the power/Fight the violence with nonviolence"?), and hiring a Brazilian-born jazz drummer should not necessarily encourage one to write Latin- and reggae-tinged rock songs. Though he claims no regrets, Jennings admits he's tried to deflect attention away from Birds and says he looks back on the album "like a bad marriage."

For Century Spring, Jennings opened up his creative process, trusting many of the production duties to Rob Skoro. The two recorded in multiple stints at Seedy Underbelly in Minneapolis and at the rural idyll of Pachyderm in Cannon Falls. "We had tons of incense," Jennings remembers, "and it was in the fall, so the leaves were beautiful. It was kind of like Kurosawa. Especially on 'Dewey Dell,' I remember all these leaves came blowing up against the window, and I was like, 'Whoa, I'm in Dreams.'"

The new album concludes with "Adrian," a cut rescued from the recordings Jennings made and scrapped in 1999. "I put that song on there to say, 'Now it's done,'" he says. "I finally finished that record I've been trying to make for years."

So what's next? "I feel like rockin' out," Jennings says. "Dude, did you hear I have these huge distortion pedals now?"

 
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