In our society’s current state, the amount of albums coming out every week that address, comment, or take a stance on polarizing issues is steady, indeed. Combine that with the public statements, speeches and tweets that artists are constantly providing, the 24/7 news cycle and all the annoying people on your Facebook feed, and you have a perpetual static that’s easier to tune out than to fully digest every day.
Thunder Follows The Light, the ninth album from Jordan Lee’s project, Mutual Benefit, serves as a still point, a breath of sanity, a meditation. It’s the rare album that manages to soothe and calm without burying its head in the sand—like a guided meditation through the reality of living in today’s world.
Ambient, folky and gorgeously arranged, the orchestral elements and Lee’s rumination on heavy-hitters like our collective past and future, internal and external strife, apocalypse and hope never feel overwhelming. Take the opening track, “Written In Lightning,” which speaks of ominous clouds forming—a storm on the way—but still feels completely uplifting. Like many of his songs, it hints at Lee’s core belief that peace and the nearest any human can get to harmony, comes from within. “Shedding Skin” also stems out of this meditative discipline; the gentle, rain-like acoustic guitar and nature metaphors reminding us to be present in the moment and rooted in ourselves. The best defense in a world on fire.
Lee’s commentary bares a harder edge on “Come To Pass,” which shatters the deeply-held American belief that the world was ever an inherently good or easy place. “But I think it’s better not to grieve / For a fiction of how things used to be,” he sings, “ ‘Cause I have a feeling it won’t ever come around.” That’s a bit of a doozy, but over a bed of wind chimes, soft rhythm and the lightest slide guitar, destroying the idea of “the good ‘ol days” never went down so easy. Global warming (“Waves Breaking”), revisionist history (“New History”), and mental illness (“No Dominion”) are all covered across the album’s 10 tracks, which Lee served as songwriter, arranger, producer, and multi-instrumentalist on.
“I became transfixed by the time in between the lightning and thunder. The silence thick with inevitability,” he explains in a statement about the album’s inspiration. “While I was writing the record, everywhere I looked, I saw massive societal strain… from human-influenced ecological disasters to an openly white supremacist U.S. president to corporate greed exploiting people’s physical and emotional lives in new ways.” If just reading that paragraph gave you anxiety, don’t worry. While Thunder draws from all this mess, it never dwells on it—urging the listener to seek solace in its lilting melodies and thoughtfully crafted soundscapes.
It’s an existential paradox summed up best by a couplet in “No Dominion.” Lee sings, “In a world that tries to numb us / It’s enough stay alive.” That’s a bleak—so bleak—sentiment , but also when that turns comfortingly hopeful—thanks to the beauty of the music behind it.