In music writing, the descriptor “timeless” often refers to songs that have transcended genre and generations, folk and blues standards that are as politically and socially relevant now as they were at the moment of their creation. But “timeless” can also refer to songs whose quality is independent of the fact that their genre was popular or hip 10 years ago.
Such is the case with singer/songwriter Jordan Lee’s Mutual Benefit and his terrific new album Love’s Crushing Diamond, an album whose contemporary notions of masculinity and baroque pop recall Sufjan Stevens and the Postal Service of the early Aughts. On Love’s Crushing Diamond, Lee offers seven immaculately composed tracks, all of which feature his refreshingly optimistic ruminations on love and life in today’s world.
The immediate standouts are Golden Wake and Advanced Falconry. On the former, a wobbly organ, a slow, shaky beat, and maudlin strings are the soundtrack to Lee’s tale of unemployment, girl troubles, and that old cliché of finding the truth in yourself down by the water. Lee begins by addressing his loved one: “And in these holy, empty hours / When my quiet thoughts get louder / Saying you’re born to be this way / You’re not meant to be afraid.” But then, Lee clarifies his intentions: “Sometimes, my heart and brain conspire / To set everything on fire / Just to stop the tyranny / Of that minute hand on me.”
In other words, Lee has realised that life isn’t to be taken for granted only because it doesn’t last forever, at which point he contrasts his previous statement, referring to himself and his loved one as a unit: “We weren’t made to be this way / We weren’t made to be afraid.” Best yet, his confidence isn’t us-against-the-world braggadocio, but motivational and inclusive inspiration. He could be talking about himself and his partner as much as any number of people in the world.
On Advanced Falconry, however, a comparatively subdued love song reminiscent of Andrew Bird’s material, Lee’s only really concentrating on the girl part of the equation. And although Lee covers a lot more thematic ground over the three minutes of Golden Wake than over the five minutes of Advanced Falconry, the latter is an instant love song classic. The lyrics on Advanced Falconry (“To look into her eyes would make a fool of anyone”; “I won’t forget the way she flies”) could have been taken from a soul song, but to hear them in the musical context of banjo-laden baroque indie pop is a new experience.
Overall, throughout Love’s Crushing Diamond, it’s hard not to analyse the music through the lens of Lee’s biographical context. First and foremost, an individual whose self-described DIY radical politics somehow didn’t clash with his jobs in the corporate sector, Lee actually named his band after a motivational corporate buzz term. Now, however, he’s getting to live the dream and tour his music instead of working day jobs; when on Golden Wake Lee sings, “I called to quit my job today,” one can’t help but think about Lee’s idealism and fulfilled opportunities in an otherwise unforgiving economic environment where some people will stop at nothing to get any job. Moreover, the moving That Light That’s Blinding, a tale about a druggie succumbing to his addiction and the effect the death has on his friends, certainly references Lee’s inspirations for Love’s Crushing Diamond: lost love, yes, but also seeing friends and family delve into the nadirs of addiction and mental disorder.
Fortunately, Love’s Crushing Diamond is hopeful enough to help anyone overcome his or her problems, as minor or major as they may be. The now popular adage that in art the personal is the universal absolutely applies to Mutual Benefit.