When “Not For Nothing”, the first single for Jordan Lee’s latest album as Mutual Benefit, was released this past winter, it appeared as a jarring shift in style. Anchored by acoustic guitar and piano, the song felt like Bright Eyes circa I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, rather than the more complex arrangements fans have grown accustomed to. It showed both a willingness to experiment and a refusal to be boxed in, as well as a troubling sign that the new album might have lost sight of what made Mutual Benefit so captivating. Thankfully, that’s not the case, as Skip A Sinking Stone, Lee’s most ambitious project yet, retains many of those elements, warm synths and lush orchestration containing flute, oboe, violin, and cello contributing to the serene dream pop Lee captures throughout the record.
Comprising Lee and a rotating cast of musicians, Mutual Benefit broke through from Bandcamp obscurity with 2013’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, a lush, expansive collection of moving, baroque, synth-driven folk songs. Lee often described himself as nomadic, moving frequently between Austin, Boston, St. Louis, and finally Brooklyn, where he’s remained for the past few years. The contents are split between those two ideologies, as the first half chronicles the restlessness of his journeys before pivoting to a meditative batch of songs on the second half, focusing on settling down and finding time for self-reflection. Taken as a whole, the album is quite sedate, an array of lulling, dreamlike tracks that flow gently.
Part of what made Lee’s 2013 breakthrough alluring was his willingness to experiment with song structures. Multiple songs crossed the five-minute mark, some even surpassed seven minutes, and the length allowed Lee to give each song more time to breathe, contributing to the blissful mood. By contrast, the majority of the tracks here come in at under four minutes, and while many bleed into each other to create a fairly cohesive suite of sorts, songs like “Closer, Still” don’t run long enough to make a lasting impression. While a few of the stronger moments like “Lost Dreamers” still possess that build, much of the album has a fleeting sensation to it that plays antithetical to the strengths of the previous record.
One aspect that benefits the record is its thematic coherence, the way lyrics and melodies crop back up throughout. The stone that Lee skips at the start of the album on the title track, the one he hopes may be the one to go forever, finally sinks on the pensive closer “The Hereafter”, as “it always does.” The mirrored imagery of hope and acceptance that bookends the record serves as its most striking theme. It runs throughout the album too, with the reinforced optimism of “Not For Nothing”, the yearning for peace on “Slow March”, and the continued struggle against cynicism on “Many Returns”. Even songs that expand beyond Lee’s worldview are built around this element of finding a balance between hope and resignation, as “City Sirens” takes on crooked cops, focusing on the discord that comes from officers who abuse their power.
Skip A Sinking Stone is Lee’s most mature, thoughtful work yet, filled with complex reflection and meditation. That sense of calm also serves as the record’s biggest drawback, as it lacks the dramatic tension and sweeping heights that made songs like “Golden Wake” or “Advanced Falconry” so direct and impactful. Lee’s latest is much more passive and as a result loses some of the emotional grandeur, taking a stately route that is often listless. While far from inscrutable, the record is more of a lingering experience that takes time to unpack. After tumultuous life experiences, it feels like Lee taking a breather, trying to find time to gather himself. The album is a sign of growth and contemplation, one indicating that this is still a step along the journey rather than the destination. Lee may not be at peace yet, but he’s well on his way.
Essential Tracks: “Skipping Stones”, “Lost Dreamers”, and “The Hereafter”