Date(s) - June 19, 2016
(+$2 for under 21)
Jordan Lee had quietly released six albums prior to 2013, so Mutual Benefit didn’t exactly come out of nowhere three years ago. But Love’s Crushing Diamond sounded like it did: a document of emotional and physical displacement during Lee’s “year of notable absences,” its florid, orchestral folk was an anachronism compared to the slick, extroverted, and heavily-hyped pop that defined that year’s indie breakthroughs. Much about Mutual Benefit remains in 2016: Lee’s still a wandering spirit surrounding himself with an orchestra of friends, recording in “forests, attics and hotel rooms” and it still sounds completely out of step with prevailing trends. But Skip a Sinking Stone is the first Mutual Benefit album to come from a very identifiable somewhere; the first half follows a newly successful band through carefully plotted tours and the second takes place in Lee’s adopted home of New York City.
In addition to Lee’s itinerary, the autumnal color scheme and loping cowboy strum of first single “Not For Nothing” evoked Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning: another clutch of traveling songs from a collectivist, indie-folk vagabond who settled into NYC. And like that record, Skip a Sinking Stone doesn’t sound or even feel like New York City. Nonetheless, the mere invocation of the city provides a kind of metaphysical importance and universality to Lee’s concerns, that he’s not just another dude in his late 20s trying to come to grips with personal success, lessons in love, and the sense that America is slowly, irreversibly headed towards self-destruction because people like him are never in charge and never want to be.
The similarities end there: Lee’s never been given nor has he sought out “voice of a generation” plaudits. Skip a Sinking Stone is invariably gentle, speaking for Lee and maybe those around him. Lee surrounds himself with people as equally curious, lovestruck, and positive as himself. As a result, Skip a Sinking Stone is probably the most chipper album about gig life ever recorded.
“Let’s take the long way home, let’s throw away our phones,” Lee sings moony-eyed during the very literal “Lost Dreamers,” a song which establishes Mutual Benefit as a natural convergence point between Neil Young’s Harvest and early 2000s freak-folk; this is the prevailing theme of Skip a Sinking Stone’s first half, where touring is just a mind-expanding road trip that happens to be interrupted by occasional load-ins, blog interviews, and stints at the merch table. “And if we get lost in a dream, wasn’t it worth all we’ve seen?,” he asks. It can all seem at odds with reality, but Skip a Sinking Stone is just at odds with the harried, hassled perspective that voluntarily serves as reality for most; Mutual Benefit never tries to force its viewpoint or really much of anything on the listener.
Besides, Lee’s POV is wholly embedded in Mutual Benefit’s music, so if you want to take his sentiments to task for being a little cloying, you might as well criticize the string parts for being too pretty. But even if this is a gorgeous album, fantastically so, that quality is occasionally to its detriment. “I’m so afraid to fall in love again, I know how it ends,” Lee sings on “Skipping Stones,” and that’s about as dark as things can get here. When “City Sirens” alludes to police brutality and Eric Garner’s death, the problem isn’t that the tonal shift is too jarring; it’s that there’s barely any at all. Though heartfelt and honest as everything else, a very specifically rendered line like “killers exposed through broken windows/there’s oaths they swore but what’s it all for?” hits with the same impact as “If there’s one thing I know, it’s that all the good times go, and the hard times too.”
After Love’s Crushing Diamond, Lee admitted he was wary of attaching any kind of story to his music, let alone his radical politics. And it seems like even stories as commonplace as “the road” and “New York” can moderate the ineffable magic of his previous work. Likewise, the mindset of Skip a Sinking Stone is best entered with the intent of total immersion and allotting a similar amount of Mutual Benefit music to more conventional song structures and interludes can feel like a vision quest stopped too frequently for bathroom breaks. But the enduring sadness in Love’s Crushing Diamond was drawn from Lee witnessing the destructive force of escapism in others. So if the newfound pragmatism and stability of Skip a Sinking Stone seems inevitable for Lee after Mutual Benefit’s success, an inveterate dreamer can’t help but make it sound transitional.
– Ian Cohen / Pitchfork (May 19, 2016)
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