Rarely do musicians fine-tune a sound on their debut the way Jordan Lee did with Mutual Benefit. His folk music is so delicate that it feels as if it could shatter in your hand if you were to press play too hard. Even when the grand acoustic backings are bursting at the seams, intimacy is the overwhelming emotion. Lee’s shy voice rests on strings, pianos, flutes, guitars, tape hisses and children’s toys, without ever being swamped; instead, the vocal glides on top of everything, whisked away by sweeping builds that are dramatic and intimate in equal measure.
Jordan Lee’s music is undoubtedly tranquil, but the very best of it is alive too. 2013’s ‘Love’s Crushing Diamond’, his debut as Mutual Benefit, was an achingly warm introduction that succeeded thanks to the breadth of its compositions, rather than just the number of people strumming alongside him. Lee’s rotating cast of musicians were cosily squeezed into these compositions. They proved that there was strength in numbers – but these were parts that moved in unison.
Songs like ‘Advanced Falconry’ and ‘Golden Lake’ are perfect examples; the dense layers of string and guitar swoon together, ebbing and flowing as one. Quiet whispers grow into sublime cries, before becoming tiny again only moments later. It was music that showed a maturity of writing beyond that of your usual quirky folk act.
On the follow up, Lee finds himself reflecting on the time he’s had since that debut, and if the glowing melodies are to be believed, all is groovy. ‘Skipping like a sinking Stone’ is Mutual Benefit exactly as we left it – close harmonies; shimmering percussion; vulnerable playing; sturdy compositions. It’s the kind of folk music that made ‘the Glow pt.2’ such an emotional powerhouse, but without any of the darkness or aggression.
At times, the music can be just as stirring as the debut; ‘Lost Dreamers’ moves patiently through a lilting melody, with the crisp recording allowing plucked strings, plonking xylophones and rich bass to wrap around each other without getting in the way. The performances remain just as inviting as before.
At points, though, there’s a feeling that Lee is resting too heavily on the warm tones he’s become known for, rather than the weight of his compositions. Lowpoint ‘Not for Nothing’ suffers from sappy generics, its plodding chord sequence doing nothing for Lee’s usual fluid melodies. Elsewhere, Lee is merely retreading old ground but without much of the urgency felt before. Too often, he cycles around similar melodic patterns to the ones we know him for. While we’re racking up complaints, the closer, while undoubtedly pretty, doesn’t sink any deeper beyond its twinkly shell.
There’s a feeling that a shot of directness could go a long way for Mutual Benefit. Still, the warm tones here are as nourishing as they’ve ever been. ‘Skip a Sinking Stone’ is a soothing daydream if there ever was one.