Ruminative and melodic with a light strain of funky freak-folk running throughout, Mason Jennings' 2011 effort Minnesota is a tidy little backwoods opus. Still favoring a kind of hippy-dippy blues delivery that's one part G. Love and one part Jack Johnson, Jennings' Midwestern vocal drawl and knack for catchy, poignant songs have developed into his own, immediately recognizable kind of thing.
A surfer-bro folkie settles down Throughout his decade-plus career, Minneapolis surfer-friendly singer-songwriter Mason Jennings has crafted quite the soundtrack to the evolution of the adolescent mind and formation of the beliefs and ideas that come with it, penning tunes navigating religion, quietly angry political anthems (such as his tribute to late Minnesota senator Paul Wellstone), catchy-but-earnest love songs and barefoot festie sing-alongs like “Keepin’ It Real” and “I Love You and Buddha Too. ” But now, the kid who loved Bob Dylan and taught himself the guitar as a teen is 36, a husband and father, and Jennings’ latest album, which bears the name of his adoptive home state, is a manifestation of that transition into adulthood. If Minnesota had a thesis statement, the album’s fourth track, “Clutch,” would be it.
Usually when an artist makes an album celebrating how famous, successful, and happy they’ve become (ahem, Mike Skinner), it’s just not very good. It lacks the creative spark that comes from being lonely, drug-addicted, and depressed. So when singer-songwriter Mason Jennings announced an upcoming album about “home and heart,” I worried; especially since his last album, 2009’s Blood of Man, exemplified great songwriting as a result of anger and isolation.
It’s possible to be too productive. While decades ago a lot of musicians pumped out many more records in a much shorter time than we’re used to today, it is easy to forget the reams of mediocre work this very often resulted in. A band like the Beatles were the exception, not the rule, as a group of extraordinary creatives who had the immense talent to put out thirteen superb albums in less than eight years.
Since recording his debut album in his living room, Mason Jennings has made the best of his DIY aesthetic, which brings a degree of intimacy and warmth to his otherwise conventional singer-songwriter style. On Minnesota, that warmth and personable tone pay dividends, as many of the songs on Jennings’s ninth album are often pretty for the sake of being pretty, and the tempo often slows to a crawl, so the album benefits from having a believable first-person character. Still, Minnesota is effective in evoking particular moments in time and specific places, and it’s a likably “homey” kind of record.
Performing at a tribute concert for Neil Young at Carnegie Hall this past February, Mason Jennings sang “Red Sun,” an understated song from Silver & Gold, a relatively obscure Young album from 2000. A few days later, Mason Jennings reprised “Red Sun”—“it’s my favorite Neil Young song,” he explained—at his own show. “Red Sun” is a song about a contented older couple watching day turn into night, happy to be alone in their small town with each other and not much else.