Mason Jennings: Use Your Voice

Mason Jennings
Use Your Voice
Bar None

The latest from Mason Jennings would be worth owning if it contained nothing other than "Ballad of Paul and Sheila," his song for the Wellstones. I say this as somebody who wishes he felt more passionately about both the singer and the subject. But Jennings captures the weariness so many of us felt in the face of loss: "October morning, little plane on the forest floor/Up on the TV between a rerun and another war." Turns out Jennings was far away when it happened: "Here in a hotel, trying to make some sense of this/Two thousand miles from my family in Minneapolis."

But by the time he reaches the chorus, he's home and no longer alone: Amy Jennings, who as Amy Turany sang in the bands February and Astronaut Wife, lends her husband the cool outline of her voice, doubling the melody to suggest closeness and solidarity: "Hey Senator, I wanna say/All the things you fought for did not die here today."

I can't remember the last time a local musician grappled so plainly and honestly with the meaning of a shared event, or did so in real time--Jennings wrote the song soon after the news broke, and posted it on his website. You might remember he got a ribbing for the politics and bossa nova of his second album, Birds Flying Away, which I quite liked. But I'm glad he's retained the idea that "sophisticated" can be code for not singing what you feel, and that his sense of melody hasn't deserted him. Jennings manages what I thought would be impossible: He rises to the occasion of national disaster. Where U2's "Pride (In the Name of Love)" had you rooting for the music against silly lyrics, and Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising" asked you to fill in its emotional blanks, Jennings knows obviousness marks the spot when you're getting it right, and when the "it" is your reaction, and not just the event itself.

That he pulls off the same with a breakup conversation, in "Fourteen Pictures," demonstrates how little righteousness has to do with his gifts. "We're still talking, but it's a memory," he sings, his gentle but arch voice sounding as frozen and weird and old as ever. The rest of Use Your Voice isn't as good, but how could it be? I'm frozen in these songs, going over them like old photos on a blue day.

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