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Published: 2004/02/26
by Karl Kukta

Use Your Voice – Mason Jennings

Bar/None Records 151

In another time, Mason Jennings might have been a superstar. Jennings is a
singer-songwriter from Minnesota who has the self-confidence, good looks and
the ear for hooky numbers it takes to break through to the mainstream, but
who also has enough pride in his work not to dilute it for the marketing
department at a major label. Their loss. Jennings has built up quite a
discography of intelligent and insightful acoustic morsels since his debut
release in 1998. His music lacks the pop sheen of a John Mayer or Jason
Mraz; his songs are more urgent than Jack Johnson, more earnest than Keller
Williams, less eclectic (and funky) than Ben Harper, and less orchestrated
than Damien Rice. His voice calls to mind '60s psychedelic folkie Donovan,
but lyrically Jennings stands on his own: he rarely if ever lapses into
sentimentality despite the fact that his songs consistently overflow with
intimacy, and he has the exceptional skill of being able to convey the
complexities of a given situation without burdening the listener with
loquaciousness or compromising the accessibility of his melodies.

On his fourth album, Use Your Voice, Jennings returns to the familiar
territory of love and (some of) the problems therein: acting upon it;
anticipating – and reveling in – its fruition; struggling to fix it when
cracks begin to show; and trying (sometimes unsuccessfully) to remain sane
when it is gone. Using minimal instrumentation – Jennings is usually
accompanied by an unassuming bass & drum set, while a couple numbers feature
only guitar and vocals – and live-in-the-studio production, Jennings wants
to convey the immediacy of all ten narrative situations. The songs attempt
to impart to the listener a sense of how a person responds emotionally in
the here-and-now to, say, a disclosure that threatens the stability of a
relationship. "What are you saying?" he asks repeatedly in "Fourteen
Pictures," adding, "this conversation is a mountainside; it's a long way
down and there's no place to hide."

Hiding is not one of Jennings' strong suits (at least not with his lyrics),
and for that we should be thankful. The first song out of the blocks,
"Crown," finds Jennings wrestling with a love that he can't let go of, even
after the female in question has admitted to having an affair and the two
have apparently broken up: "I don't want to be together; I don't want to be
apart; I don't want none of this love for you honey, deep deep down in my
heart." Despite the somber lyrics, the song's arrangement is urgent, almost
giddy. In this light, the performance itself is seen as a form of therapy,
a first step on the road to emotional recovery, rather than a manifestation
of self-pity or hopelessness.

But getting there takes more than a few bouncy rhythms. On the very next
song, "The Light (part II)," Jennings all but collapses after trying to
metaphorize – and thus distance himself from – the breakup by picturing the
effects of a setting sun on the landscape. He begins to address the woman
directly, singing, [T]o me this love was true and shining, these years were
real and defining. Please don't forget how much I meant to you, when you
are redefined by someone new." The song is even more heart-wrenching when
put in context with "The Light," which concludes his 2000 release Birds
Flying Away and on which his last lines are "Free what's within you,
shine with the light." The liberation has gone too far. Yet just a couple
tracks later, on the folk-rap of "Keepin' it Real," Jennings is rejuvenated
(temporarily at least) by a new love and waxes mock-poetically, "It's a
common stipulation that there ain't no hope, but there's a tire swing baby
on the end of our rope."

Jennings has often used his songwriting as a platform for political
expression, but this color is lacking from the palette of Use Your
Voice. The closest we get is the touching "Ballad of Paul and Sheila,"
a song that Jennings wrote shortly after former Minnesota senator Paul
Wellstone died in a plane crash in 2002. "Hey Senator, I want to say, all
the things you lived for did not die here today," Jennings sings, but in
reference more to the Wellstone marriage rather than any legislative
achievements.

What, then, is Jennings trying to say in the album's title, if not a
political call-to-action? Based on the content of Use Your Voice, I
would argue that Jennings' command is rooted in a belief in the curative
power of narratives: that for love and healing to occur requires an
individual's immersion into the social. And furthermore, that the works
that move us most do so precisely because they have come from voices that
chose to spoke when convenience (and distress) would have dictated
otherwise. "If this darkness came from light, then light can come from
darkness I guess," Jennings sings in "Drinking as Religion," and I applaud
him for taking the risk and sharing so many of his emotional hues with us.

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