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. Here is the struggle between young adulthood and settling down, where our narrator is uncomfortable with his own levels of nostalgia (“When I was young / older people would reminisce / I’d say, ‘No that’s not me.’’). But as he waxes nostalgic about a lost love, the tempo picks up, the horns join in out of nowhere and the floodgates have been opened: recollections of wheedling older siblings to buy booze, kissing your significant other so hard you chip their two front teeth and other goofy anecdotes that are easily recognized without feeling ham-fisted. And as with the opener, he shifts two-thirds of the way through, this time pulling an almost Ferris Bueller-esque breaking of the fourth wall (do the kids these days still get that reference?) to ask the listeners at home directly about their own lost loves and irreplaceable moments. Similarly captivating is the low-key folk confessional “Wake Up,” in which Jennings recounts his struggles with anxiety, turning to meditation and coming to terms with his illness with narrative strength and candor.
If adult contemporary radio has taught us anything, nothing says “adulthood” quite like wistful crooning and easy-to-digest piano riffs, which feature prominently on quite a few of Jennings’ tracks here. But as often happens with artists trying to embrace a more “adult” sound, the results sometimes become over-familiar and forgettable: “Hearts Stop Beating” is easy-on-the-ears radio-ready AC pop in the vein of The Wallflowers, and hushed piano-pop closer “No Relief” just feels unconvincing.
There are moments where Jennings deviates thematically and sonically from the boy-becomes-a-man-and-uses-all-the-pianos thru-line—some succeed, like the loose and likeable “Well Of Love,” and others, not so much, like the synthy fairytale nightmare mess of “Witches Dream.” “Rudy,” the album’s moody folk-epic offering, could either be an Arthurian heist tale (complete with finger-severing imagery!) or an allegory for the American people’s frustration with the economy and the power of its super-wealthy, depending on how you choose to read it. Or neither of the above. But “Rudy” reveals the Dylan-loving kid Jennings used to be and shows he can tell a pretty engaging story, be it steeped in fantasy or reality.
Minnesota is the sonic equivalent a well-dressed young professional getting ready for the first day of a first “real job,” complete with well-coordinated first-day suit. Some of it feels just a bit too polished and familiar, as if performing to some level of expectation of what maturity is supposed to sound like. But when Jennings loosens his tie to reveal the self-awareness, effortless charm and even playfulness of his earlier work, he demonstrates it’s possible to grow up without being dull and shows he’ll have staying power until he’s AARP-eligible and beyond.