Mutual Benefit’s debut album proper Love’s Crushing Diamond was one of 2013’s very best. A short but gorgeous suite of seven exquisitely arranged baroque folk compositions, its peaceful, mellow mood belied an introspective lyrical theme, exploring the importance of being in control of one’s own emotional well-being in order to adequately support others.
The band is essentially one man – American multi-instrumentalist Jordan Lee – who lives a peripatetic existence drifting between different U.S. cities, recording with chosen co-musicians as he travels. Currently based in New York, Lee’s second collection as Mutual Benefit had its genesis while he toured Love’s Crushing Diamond, as a successful artist with money coming in for the first time. Yet he was also reflecting on the impermanence of many aspects of life and the need to accept failure as well as success, sharpened by the relationship difficulties he experienced after settling in the Big Apple. Lee compares these ups and downs to the act of skipping stones across a lake: some throws work out better than others, giving the album its title.
The end result is arguably even better than Love’s Crushing Diamond. All the qualities that made that record so sublime have been built upon further on Skip A Sinking Stone, delivering a more expansive work of rare depth and poise.
After the low key opening of Madrugada, two ambient, wordless minutes of gently fluttering strings, acoustic guitar and wind chimes, Lee soon hits peak form on the superb title track. Beginning with a whispered eulogy: “You are the first thing I see/When I open my eyes and wake from a dream,” the song then shifts gear effortlessly into the kind of lilting, piano-led groove that characterised much of Love’s Crushing Diamond before building to a series of shimmering, euphoric crescendos rich in emotional intensity.
This high standard is sustained throughout Skip A Sinking Stone. Because Mutual Benefit’s music flows so smoothly and unobtrusively, it works best as a complete, immersive experience over a whole album, rather than on a track by track basis. Yet stand-out songs nevertheless emerge, notably the two singles already released from the record; the string-laden, heartbreakingly lovely Lost Dreamers and the magical country-folk of Not For Nothing, perhaps the closest Lee gets to classic singer songwriter territory with its shades of Harvest-era Neil Young in the melody and high register of the vocal.
Elsewhere, Slow March is a hypnotic blend of deft finger picked guitar and Indian-influenced textures, while Many Returns starts with a stately, haunting organ and then glides serenely towards a graceful, arcing chorus. Both of these tracks showcase Lee’s unfailing ability to deploy musicians sparingly yet effectively to supplement the simplicity of his song writing, subtly adding extra layers to the sound without ever saturating the inherently fragile structures.
If there’s one criticism of Skip A Sinking Stone, perhaps Lee could have chosen a slightly stronger song to close the album than the pleasant but unremarkable The Hereafter. Yet even when his quality control slips slightly, the music remains utterly beautiful, like glittering light on a river, or gossamer threads floating through the air on a summer’s day. It’s hard to imagine that anyone else will take us on a journey quite as blissful during 2016.