Much like the aging scenesters who reminisce about the great Minneapolis heyday of the '80s, Mason Jennings's longtime fans have never really gotten over the days when he was first finding his voice, playing coffee shops, selling records out of his van, and holding down house gigs at places like the 400 Bar. Those early days were memorable—each show drew bigger and bigger crowds, and it was easy to see that Jennings's star was quickly rising—and the vibe of his early shows and albums was one of giddy anticipation, experimentation, and pure artistic freedom.
Over the past decade, Jennings has transformed into one of the Twin Cities' biggest success stories, getting picked up first by Epic and then Jack Johnson's Brushfire Records. But despite his increasing success, those tingling sensations of frenetic energy and fierce independence all but fell to the wayside, and fans began to long for the days when Jennings was still in charge of his own fate.
With the release of his new album, Blood of Man, fans can breathe easy once again. In a dramatic shift, Jennings has returned to a more free-spirited form, recording all of the songs on his own, leaving them unfinished and raw, and (OMG!) plugging in an electric guitar.
"The last record was very quiet and introspective," Jennings says. "It was about coming to terms with faith and being a parent. And I was just so tired of being so quiet. I took off the winter, and I started going to my studio every day, having fun, and those are the songs that came out. I didn't really have anything in mind. I wasn't really thinking about it being a record or anything, I was just thinking about having fun."
That sense of adventure is evident across the 10 tracks on Blood of Man, which is being released this week. The album kicks off with a chugging, gritty guitar on "City of Ghosts" as Jennings does his best Springsteen impression, his voice sounding downright flippant at times. "The Field" is an epic five-minute jam that contemplates war from a parent's perspective, while "Ain't No Friend of Mine" is bluesy and distorted, reminiscent of work by lo-fi contemporaries like the Eels and the Black Keys. There is blood on the tracks throughout the record, as his lyrics seem to hover around a recurring theme—"Try to kiss me when there's blood in my mouth," Jennings scoffs during one song, while another starts with the line, "When I got home there was blood on the door."
There's a darkness to the album that lends a new depth to Jennings's work, marrying folk melodies and strains of acoustic guitar with feedback, fuzz, and painful honesty.
"I didn't expect that kind of music to come out of me at all," Jennings says. "But I'm real stoked about it. The last 10 years, I've been touring so much and under so much pressure. You have to be around an audience all the time, and you don't have the same room to just create like you would if you weren't playing for people. So I just made sure I gave myself a chance to not think about it in those terms for a few months. It was really freeing for me."
While Blood of Man is Jennings's eighth full-length record, he says that it's most similar to his very first CD, a self-titled homemade disc that he recorded and released on his own back in 1997. "My first record was done by myself in a living room, and nobody knew who I was at all, so I could just make whatever I wanted to make," he says. As with that first record, Jennings wrote and recorded all of the parts on Blood of Man himself, giving him total control over the finished product. But not everything is as carefree as it once was for Jennings. A decade of widespread success has changed the playing field for the once fiercely independent folk musician.
"The main thing I miss is having freedom," he says. "The freedom to create—but it's all internal. Nobody's doing that to me. I miss that feeling of just making it for myself. But I think I'm getting it back. That's what's definitely coming back in my life. I hit a point where I'm like, man, I've just got to make music that moves me."
Jennings's label has been receptive of his new sound and approach, he says. The rough edges and unpolished nuances of Blood of Man are something of a return to form for Jennings, whose once gritty folk sound had become smoother and more produced in recent years. "Anybody that's seen me play live would probably not be surprised by [the record]," Jennings says, "because I play a lot more rock stuff live. What I would hope is that people, when they listen to my music, would just know that I'm going to be putting out stuff that's really moving to me, and it'll probably change over my whole life, and develop, and that the only way to keep it really authentic is to just let it grow."