Comparing a young Minnesotan singer-songwriter with nasal intonation to Bob Dylan is like building his crucifix and handing him nails and a hammer. If he's as good a topical songwriter as Jesus was a carpenter, he'll do his thing, and the public will eventually put the nails through his wrists. If he's as smart as Dylan has proven to be, though, he'll walk away, vowing to make the world a bit more pleasant in the near future.
Mason Jennings--a 31-year-old, Honolulu-born, Pittsburgh- and Minneapolis-reared singer-songwriter--is, fortunately, a safe distance from his own artistic suicide these days, staring up at the cross--likely lit from the rear by a gorgeous sunrise--for inspiration. On his first proper album, 2000's Birds Flying Away, Jennings seemed to be tempting Pilate's punishment, coddling odes to Dr. Martin Luther King, shouting anthems for Black Panthers, and singing, "I believe that freedom has got to come from within/ Yes, it does and without the gun."
People jumped superficially to the Dylan tag, latching onto Jennings' tone and static keys as a segue for the sometimes political bent of his work. But he was always headed someplace else: Before 2002's Century Spring, he married, devoting most of that album to exquisite lullabies of his love. 2004's Use Your Voice rekindled the rebellion, but it all seemed fueled by hope and a genuine hopefulness. It wasn't about Dylan's early disdain as much as McCartney's ecumenical benevolence and hope.
Jennings fosters that hope directly as a lyricist and indirectly as an evolving artist, constantly making himself work harder. As such, he's always seemed at the cusp of a masterpiece, but Boneclouds--his major-label debut and the first project for Glacial Pace, the Epic imprint of Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock--isn't it. When it hits, it overwhelms. When it misses, it stalls.
But that's fine: Jennings' aesthetic has always been encapsulated by the permanence of possibility, whether it's in spending the rest of his life with his "one true love" or fulfilling the liberal visions of late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone. Some day soon, one has to think his hope will win out, and the world will be a bit more pleasant for his survival.
Mason Jennings plays the Cat's Cradle on Friday, June 16 at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $14-$16, and Teddy Thompson opens.