Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Brad Kopplin
Mason Jennings is not a God man. But I'm a liar. He is, but he isn't. It's all very confusing and yet it's exactly as it should be. The Minnesotan singer/songwriter is beholden to a spirit that seems to be loving and caring and good to the core, but there's still more of the riddle to be unscrambled before he lets himself cannonball into the thick, black part of the water - where the truly blind and unwavering believers just step off into without the slightest hesitation, without the slightest misgiving about cold temperatures or infested depths. Religion as a pastime or life for followers of scripture and the customary way that it's always been in their family is not enlightenment. It's just following. Jennings, a high school dropout, a husband, a father of a couple young boys, and some sort of mild-mannered prophet, has chosen the rocky and hilly path toward knowing whomever it is that calls the shots.
One gets the feeling - from previous albums and especially, In The Ever, his new record on Jack Johnson's Brushfire imprint - that Jennings didn't always think the way he did about a god or a religion. Oh, he might have been the atheist-est of all atheists. He might have cursed religion for all that it had never done for him. He might have been someone who just used that praying thing when he was in a bind - if ever at all. The man that Jennings seems to be now is one who is not afraid to explore what it means to believe in something, to consider the possibility of religion and all of that gilded text to be history, not fiction or wishful thinking, held onto by scared sheep. He's suggested that he's still got so many questions that he's not received answers for. He's not pressing anything, and two songs on In The Ever are anchors for a schematic appraisal of how he's trying to piece it all together, even though he's aboard, he's on ship and it's pushing off from the dock. He's already cracked the bottle of champagne against the side of his boat and put his trust in the vessel.
With that said, until you are roughing some choppy waves, with no shore in sight, confidence in any ship's seaworthiness is a guessing game. He approaches a religion the same way, with unending questions, rebuttals and redirects. It's part of a solidification and affirmation that it's not just a leap onto the greatest cause célèbre that's ever come into existence. There are times on the record when the question arises: Is this one about his wife or is this one about God? Perhaps that's an even deeper and more perplexing distinction that would be like pulling sugar out of honey. Could it actually happen or does he just look at both simultaneously? One love of his life is wrapped into the other loves of his life, one way or another and it always comes across so naturally in all of Jennings' folk songs — of autumn sounds and sweater weather. They all bask in a glow that comes from a guy who's likely had to forge his own path for a while now - in music and in life. "Never Knew Your Name" conjures the idea about seeking help in a crisis. In a burning house, the character kneels at the burning door, so low that he learns to love the flames. It's about the unknowable and unseen spirit more than anything. It's about love before there was love. It's about inherent trust and beauty coming from somewhere within, like cracking open an egg or a cocoon and getting its contents - often good or bad - the runny yolk or a butterfly. "How Deep Is That River" is the finest moment on the new album, as good of an example of the enormity of thinking about religion and also of the perpetual questions that will arise in wanting to live by it - or in wanting to start living by it after a lengthy time of trepidation.
What Jennings gets across so smartly and impressively is that there is still never any sureness to any of the faith, even with oceans of belief. As Islands suggested in yesterday's session, benevolence cannot always be that. It cannot be life if it is universally cheery and clean, full of blessings and more blessings and a cherry on top. Those rough patches are buffers. God can be and has a right to keep things interesting. It's fine to test faith, says Jennings, and it's fine to wonder what's down in that deep, black water. You can just put your toes in, call into it to see if you get any answers, get your shins wet if you still feel safe, go in up to your waist. Maybe you'll never get your hair wet. Even so, you're in pretty deep and you know that the next step will send you into a plummet, with just a soft wave in deference to the land above.