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Mutual Benefit - Thunder Follows the Light Music Album Reviews

Jordan Lee’s latest record aims to make his beatific melodies and rich orchestrations match the gravity of his subject matter.

Climate change can feel like an ambient crisis—slowly, sea levels rise, at first in micrometers and then in centimeters, and then in feet. Incrementally, summers feel hotter, and storms seem to rear their heads more often and more violently. It is this combination of inevitability and deferred disaster that makes climate change an alluring inspiration for artists: Ryuichi Sakamoto salvaged a waterlogged piano from the 2011 Great Tōhoku Earthquake to manifest the warped sounds of environmental catastrophe. ANOHNI used her 2015 single “Four Degrees” to paint a terrifying view of the future, one where dogs cry for water and fish die en masse. On Thunder Follows the Light, the latest album from Jordan Lee as Mutual Benefit, the climate crisis is a call to self-reflection. The album assumes that we’re all heading towards an apocalypse—political, environmental, or both—so we might as well be kind to one another while we’re all still here.

Interiority is nothing new for Lee. His debut LP as Mutual Benefit, 2013’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, was a striking collection of contemplative chamber folk, filled with careful musings on the transcendent quality of love. His follow-up, 2016’s Skip a Sinking Stone, plotted Lee more firmly in the folk-rock tradition of vagabond anthems and tunes about heartbreak. But behind the gentle, sloping guitars and rich orchestration, Lee quietly slipped more radical political views into his writing: the hopelessness of an impoverished mining town, the brutality of state violence—broad discontentments refracted through the prism of Lee’s personal experience.

With Thunder Follows the Light, Lee directs his focus towards more theoretical injustices, studying the works of science fiction author Octavia Butler and activist Naomi Klein to imagine a world without polar ice caps. Leading up to the new record, Lee spoke of “massive societal strain on both people and the environment” and a metaphorical “lightning before some thunderous change.” But writing from within can only go so far when the subjects at hand are, quite literally, matters of life or death. And rather than rise to the challenge, Lee seems content to sing broad platitudes. Despite his best intentions to reflect a necessary sea change in the way we treat our terrestrial home, the resulting ten tracks put forth distinctly quotidian coping mechanisms for waiting out the “thunder.”

Throughout the album, Lee carefully avoids any political stance; for Lee, there is no hardship that cannot be overcome with intimacy and affection. On album opener “Written in Lightning,” he embeds himself into the farmer’s market crowd, asking, “If love is an armor, then can we love stronger?” On “Storm Cellar Heart,” Lee romanticizes taking shelter from a storm with a lover by his side: “When you hold me, it’s so much better; it’s enough to drown out the thunder.” This doe-eyed optimism is easily digestible, and that is perhaps the biggest issue: the realities Lee purports to write about are not easy.

Though the lyrical themes may lack potency, Thunder Follows the Light highlights Lee’s knack for composing beautiful melodies. It is densely packed with bespoke orchestration, filled with glittering piano and mellow horns. Lee’s voice, as always, is lilting and gentle, so hypnotically rhythmic that it often recalls children’s lullabies. On “No Dominion,” he strikes an agreeable balance of muted, contemplative piano and somber, religious lyrics: the title is a reference to a poem by Dylan Thomas, which in turn references St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans. The sentiment is heavy, arguing for the perseverance of an ineffable soul after our earthly bodies no longer occupy this earth. For a brief moment, as he sings about reciting Thomas’s morbid poem, his voice drops and flattens. It is a welcome reflection of the sobering topics at hand, and proof that Lee can write an affecting and serious ballad.

But too often, the preciousness of the album’s instrumentation seems cloying in the face of such weighty subjects. Meditations on historical ignorance like “New History” are mismatched with the cheery vocal harmonies that deliver them. A solemn commentary on rising sea levels, “Waves Breaking,” is sadly drowned out by the song’s overcrowded arrangement and muddled metaphors. For Lee, romantic and even fantastical idealism has long been a means to parse his inner demons. But when those demons become too large for charming poetics, beatific melodies and jangling orchestral compositions fail to rise to the occasion.

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