Album Of The Week

Hope amid the gloom

Jordan Lee is the mastermind behind Mutual Benefit.
Jordan Lee is the mastermind behind Mutual Benefit.PHOTO: TRANSGRESSIVE RECORDS

Indie folk collective Mutual Benefit warns listeners gently in the eco-conscious Thunder Follows The Light

Water, water, everywhere.

It is one vivid motif coursing through the three full-length physical albums by Jordan Lee, mastermind behind the peripatetic American indie-folk outfit Mutual Benefit.

Water "rolls along with such simplicity" in the first track, Strong River, in 2013's Love's Crushing Diamond, through to the closer, Strong Swimmer, in which "it takes more/ Than a strong swimmer/To stay above water/With a body divided".

In 2016's Skip A Sinking Stone, Lee skips "a stone across the pond" and lets it sink "to the murky depths where light is found".

On his third album, Thunder Follows The Light, water takes on an ominous overtone from the start. It is a harbinger of the terrible consequences the human race deserves for not taking care of the world, environmentally and politically.

Written In Lightning is a bellwether. "The winds have been rising/Torrid and frightening/And clouds have been gathering/On our way home," Lee sings over a deceptively soothing braiding of strings, banjos and percussion, which belies the horrific destiny that could befall all.

While it is tempting to go full-blown Biblical, Lee eschews the obvious histrionics and prefers a nudge here and there. "If love is an armour/Then can we love stronger?" he beseeches, as the orchestration swells and caresses and runs over.

He is not interested in proselytising, at least not loudly.



    Mutual Benefit


    Rating: 4/5

His advocacy is anchored in his meticulous laying out of the doomsday scenarios, so you can make up your mind.

New History is a bucolic singalong, which gains potency once you realise this is the aftermath, the post-apocalyptic Ground Zero.

Still, ghosts haunt. Lee harmonises with a female singer on the chorus: "Because spirits linger/Cities whisper/Of who we once were/Repeating over." The harmonica reminds one of an extinct age, drunk with nostalgia.

It is not all doom and gloom. The singer believes in redemption, in the goodness of mankind to turn things around. He wants people to embrace more openly, to "love stronger", so to speak. In Storm Cellar Heart, he wants the listener to savour every sensory experience, to wake up early "just in time to see morning glories".

"They're in bloom now/A neighbour told me/That it helps to notice the small things," he explains over jazzy contours of a saxophone and the brisk jaunt of a piano.

Some may call it precious, but Lee's honesty and lack of contrivance are without doubt.

These qualities are in magisterial display in the thoughtful ballad, No Dominion.

The title is an allusion to the Dylan Thomas poem, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, which is, in turn, lifted from St Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

Is there soul after the all-consuming expiration of the body? What is death? Does it matter anymore? There are no easy answers.

Over decorous ivory tinkling, he sings plainly, as if opening up to a confidante: "In a world that tries to numb us/It's enough to stay alive/ Peace is more than just a season/It is worth the fight."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 25, 2018, with the headline 'Hope amid the gloom'. Print Edition | Subscribe