Mason Jennings’ creative pendulum has found a predictable oscillation in recent years between exploration and homecoming. These are rhythms of departure (Wild Dark Metal, Painted Shield) and arrival (Songs From When We Met), which makes Real Heart, Jennings’ latest album, the expected return to his straightforward acoustic roots.
Longtime listeners of Jennings (some of whom can claim an incredible quarter-century of fandom at this point) will be the greatest appreciators of Real Heart given how some of its songs (“Tomorrow”, “The Demon”) echo his earliest work on his self-titled debut (1998) or Birds Flying Away (2000). It’s a testament to Jennings’ songwriting prowess that he continues to captivate with a minimalist approach after two-and-a-half decades.
Lead track (and single) “Tomorrow” is the lyrical lighthouse of this set of 10 songs. The cascading acoustic number, beautifully backed by upright bass and twinkling piano, features communal couplets that remind us of (and call us to) a shared humanity. He sings, “The beauty that we know is beauty that we borrow / The love that we help grow will build a new tomorrow.”
From there, not everything is as encouraging or inspiring, but it’s every bit as vulnerable as you’ve come to expect from a Mason Jennings album. On “The Demon,” he admits, “It’s been ages since I’ve said the word no and took care of my soul.” “The Game” plays with whimsical instrumentation even as Jennings soaks in a few minutes of regret. “Faded” is even colder, lyrically speaking, despite its warm acoustic tones as Jennings sings, “I don’t know why we only get one chance / When the whole thing rests on happenstance.”
Fresh off recording the Painted Shield album (with a new band of the same name), Jennings was ready to simplify his process after stretching his musical legs via the synth-rock collaboration with guitarist Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam), drummer Matt Chamberlain (Bob Dylan), and keyboardist Brittany Davis. Perhaps it’s this sonic back-and-forth that allows Jennings to maintain a fresh vision for such a familiar approach.