A few days before I went to my first Mason Jennings concert at the now defunct Mississippi Nights, my mom came to visit me in Saint Louis. We had lunch at the famous Blueberry Hill, and we may or may not have had a few too many Bloody Marys with our hamburgers and fries. I knew that Jennings was playing an in-store set later that day up the street at Vintage Vinyl, and I dragged my mother along to check it out.
Feeling only a touch (and by a touch, I mean pretty) tipsy, we listened to the set, and I bought his then latest release, Boneclouds. He signed my newly purchased CD, and right then and there, I decided: I like this Mason Jennings dude. He was so kind, and he had curly hair. Plus, I think he was wearing corduroy. My mom thought he deserved an invite to Pier 1, our next destination. She wanted to buy a bench; maybe he had nothing better to do and wanted to come along.
Years later, and riding on the heels of his latest release, In the Ever, I pretend that Jennings would appreciate the silly humor my mom and I displayed that day in the record store. His own goofiness is more than evident in his song writing. In the song “Your New Man,” a tune on In the Ever devoted to an ex’s new beau, he jokingly sings, “Girl, please say he doesn’t tuck his shirts in, please/please say he doesn’t wear a gold chain, please.” In Century Spring’s “Bullet,” he drips with clever irony: “Oh yes, this song is a joke/Funny like our house going up in smoke/funny like the bomb between my teeth when we kiss.”
Jennings also seems to have a penchant for a modern day folksy-scat, using nonsense words to supplement his verses. Furthermore, he has the habit, with his distinct tone, to perform vocal runs within surprising monosyllables, creating a new pronunciation for the most mundane words. He crafts intriguing narratives about fictional characters. He adds significance to ordinary vignettes and obscure details. It’s true: he really isn’t like anyone else.
But, there’s another level to Jennings’ music. Once you get to know the deeper stuff, it seems like the lighthearted must be the remedy that allows him to forge ahead even though life’s biggest mysteries are still left unsolved. You see, Jennings is continuously on a search for the meaning of it all. Yes, there is a good dose of existential angst in his music, just the way I like it.
His spiritual journey has been documented throughout his discography. In “Ulysses,” off Use Your Voice, he refers to the classic James Joyce novel for answers: “Now I have it here sitting on the table/another word for the universe.” In “If You Need a Reason,” from Boneclouds, he unsuccessfully looks to his faith: “Got so lost that I went to church/sorry God, but you made it worse.” In “Jesus, Are You Real?” he admits, “All I do is love you God/all I do is doubt you God/what else can I do?”
Ultimately, he claims that he just doesn’t know about these things. “I feel kind of uneasy because I haven’t found any answers,” admits Jennings. “Part of the journey for me is becoming more comfortable with not having the answers.”
During the times he obviously feels more steadfast in his journey, he ventures back to the upbeat cheerfulness for which he’s known. Off In the Ever, “I Love You and Buddha, Too” is a catchy song acknowledging the inclusiveness of religion. On “Be Here Now,” he sings, “Be here now, no other place to be/all the doubts that linger, just set them free.” Most importantly, you have to find happiness in what you’ve been given despite the blatant not knowing.
Refreshingly, Jennings presents his wonderment in a manner dramatically different from the Elliott Smith types out there; there will be no slitting of the wrists, thank you very much. There might even be some giggling and some “bada wada wop shoo was” involved. And your mom might even approve.
He said it: