Anyone who thinks of Mason Jennings less as a singer than as a songwriter-who-sings should try to imagine anyone else pulling off his songs. What would Elliot Smith, for instance, do with "Rebecca DeVille" from last year's Stuck On AM 2 compilation? That celebrated Northwesterner sings with a Beatles accent that would lend "Happy Birthday" the ache of the ages. But "DeVille" hinges entirely on Jennings's ability to turn his voice into a costume prop. Like any folkie, he mostly talks and purrs through his lullaby-turned-waking-nightmare--a tune about a fellow hitchhiker and lover lost to a roadside murder. Yet when he falls into his recurring dream, he switches to the present tense with a warble that sounds like Eddie Vedder barking orders at his horse: "Don't you get in the car/Don't you get in the car," he howls impotently at Rebecca. "I can't stand to see this/I can't stand to see this."
Life-and-death melodrama can be a crutch for singer-songwriters--one I'd beat Smith for, if he hung his armpit on it. But Mason, as fans can't help but call him, is more than just a good actor; he's a gifted mannerist. To chew every word into little mouth sculptures, he must first peel his lyrics off the page, which is a good thing, because they don't always sit well there. Like Lou Reed, Jennings has cultivated his own distinct singer's accent--not quite region-specific, but certainly located in the saliva beneath the hick-hipster, rural-urban tongue of plenty of other American rock 'n' rollers.
And just as Lou Reed's Long Guyland slur had nothing to do with "over by the corner" becoming "ovah badda cona," Jennings's Pennsylvania roots probably aren't enough to turn "violence" into "vah-olence" or "quietly" into "quat [wait five minutes] lee." (Pittsburgh may be south of here, but does that make it Southern?) His drawl is as cool as anything in country or folk, neither of which genres fully contains Jennings. And those spaces for breath within the words seem to let the lyrics hover in the air a second before signifying, which lends them some abstract beauty. Of course, it also lends them an undue similarity to Adam Sandler singing "Lunchlady Land." But Sandler is a great mannerist too.
The reason I mention all this is that the words on Jennings's new self-released album Birds Flying Away have a lot of mountains and hearts and, of course, birds, in them. But they're not poetry--or even "poetry." Good songwriting rarely is. Instead of taking flight, these lyrics feather their way earthward, never thudding when they're plain, but gently settling in your hair when they're plainly pretty. All hyperextended metaphors aside, people place too much emphasis on the "writing" part of "songwriting," anyway, especially when those people happen to be writers. The first words out of the gate here are an awkwardly blatant "And with the world comes misery/Comes jealousy and pain," but the melody is so perfect that the listener could press stop right then and there and never forget them.
No wonder this followup to Jennings's 1998 self-titled debut is the most anticipated local release in years, the home version of the magic show he and his trio have made a legend (and I don't say this lightly) over at the 400 Bar for two winters. Entering the Masonic temple, you'd think this gaunt young twentysomething, his chiseled looks as handsome as his postpunk attire is unassuming, might be about to get a-preaching. (Critic Jim Walsh once said he looked like a white Malcolm X.) There's certainly something priestly in his held-in stage manner and old man's croak and even, when you think about it, in his indie-austere acoustic guitar plinking. Searching for the perfect love song on "Ballad For My One True Love," he writes about searching for the perfect love song--dreaming about it, once again, but asleep in a cherry tree above...a monastery.
Elsewhere he invokes Jesus with no less gentleness and sincerity than he brings to a Goodnight Moon-like serenade such as "Stars Shine Quietly" (well, of course they do). Birds Fly Away is where Mason finally does get a-preaching, and he wastes no time about it. After his first, best, and perhaps most concise tune here, "Confidant," he moves into the acoustic samba-ska of a number that, regardless of your politics and mine, will never be Our Song if we date: "United States of Global Empire." One of my friends, an ardent Jennings fan and a leftist, says this tune, like much of the new album, reminds her of a 20-year-old going through his "political phase" (Jennings is 25). Sure, she says, it's unusual and pretty cool that, almost 40 years after "Masters of War," a rapidly mainstreaming acoustic hero with a bunch of frat boys in his audience is singing lines like "Freedom izza not competish-un/Freedom is the ability to love evrah-whun," as Jennings does here. But it's grating anyway, she says. Still, Jennings is so special to his audience that fans are as likely to follow him into the Church of Scientology as they are to wish he'd play the same set every Sabbath.
I love Birds Fly Away, complete with its I-just-read-a-book-about-the-Black Panthers song ("Black Panther") and its U2-worthy (read: dubious) abstract meditation on MLK (the chorus of "Dr. King" is an elongated "A-la-ba-ma") and a fake traditional that feels both traditional and fake ("Duluth"). Paradoxically, all this narrowly skirts parody, thanks to that weird, indeed comic, Sandleresque quality. And there's nothing wrong with waxing political: I talk about global empire and the media being the mouthpiece of the capitalists all the time. And...wait a minute. I don't, really. No one does, even when they hold these truths to be self-evident. Just like they never say I love you, and save the praise-God stuff for Sundays. Maybe Mason Jennings is a songwriter first after all.