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Mutual Benefit – Thunder Follows The Light

New from Mutual Benefit, Thunder Follows The Light is a strongly tied concept album that reflects on problems, inner and outer. New York based singer-songwriter Jordan Lee is back with another brew of orchestral pop, one that is a more directed effort. His vision is simultaneously limitless and narrow, with the songs expanding over large-scale issues, but falling into similar spaces as each other. Thunder Follows The Light is a concept through and through, taking the time to mull on environmental, political, philosophical and societal issues, as well as the inner turmoil, or storms, of the mind. Lee’s arrangement and production skills are beheld to marvel, showcased on every track with flourishing and deep composition, and the warmest mixes possible.

The opening track “Written in Lightning” immediately sets the soundstage and attack of the album. Think of an acoustic Pink Floyd, Simon & Garfunkel, or a more orchestral Josh Pyke. The instrumentation is clearly grand from the outset – swaying string melodies and dual acoustic guitars intertwine to form an inviting, but enlightening atmosphere. Atop some muted banjo plucking, Lee outlines the premise of the album. “The clouds have been gathering”, he says, alluding to the beginnings of troubles in life. The song itself is a beautiful ascension to the heavens, slowly incorporating percussive elements and swelling string emphasis. Yet, despite this escalation, the cut doesn’t try to drop into something bigger or heavier than what it is, which is refreshing and commendable. Opening with the longest song of the bunch is an unusual move – but it works well due to the perfectly crafted structure and the lyrical context of the song. The pure simplicity of the track, fleshed out with orchestral percussion, heavy delay, and perfect harmonies, works to create this heavenly environment, over which Lee preaches his word. If you are a fan of mellow, natural, or laid-back music, this track is likely to pull you into the world of Mutual Benefit.

“New History” takes a more lo-fi approach to the album’s sound, but retains the same core instrumentation. Acoustic chords and a slightly wonky harmonica run over some solid progressions, jamming in a vein similar to a Bob Dylan or Fleet Foxes track. Lyrics are at the forefront of the cut, with some featuring vocals from Johanne Swanson providing great harmony and space. Arpeggiated piano and slide guitar run under the repeated line “because spirits linger”, giving the song an additional sense of size. Lee’s round and breathy vocals reaffirm as a mainstay at this point, and continually add a calming element to this song, and all others on Thunder Follows The Light.

The following track, “Storm Cellar Heart” creates a beautiful atmosphere with some simple acoustic layering and woodwind sections. The slow pace of the song, paired with Lee’s rich vocals, gives incredible emphasis on the great melody of lines such as “taking shelter to wait out this inclement weather”. As with “New History”, this track has various lo-fi qualities in its production and performance. Contrasting this, the suspended cymbals on the track are, arguably, one of the most significant details added to the track. They add a brilliance and special context to the rest of the instruments, which fills out the track and reinforces its structure.

“Shedding Skin” has a bit more pace and rhythm than previous cuts, and nice a piano/acoustic guitar motif slinks on the offbeat nicely, in a way almost reminiscent of Elliott Smith. Some more conventional percussion lingers at the back of the mix, which helps to set a structure for some flute arrangements to scatter in the wind. Unfortunately, at this point, all the album has to offer seems clear, in terms of its variation and excitement. While the truly beautiful vibe and balance of the tracks is amazing, from track to track it does get tiring. “Come to Pass” is a slight dip in quality and enjoyment, simply given its similarity to what preceded it. While the premise of a concept album can be freeing, this track falls short in its typical chord progressions and a tempo too similar to other tracks on the record.

“Waves, Breaking” is a much needed and more experimental track, opening with some feedback and fuzz guitar. Some exciting sax riffing ties in nicely with the thunderous bottom end of the song, and the gently lilting quality of the track melds with this perfectly. “We rarely listen” muses Lee, despite being “masters of our dreams”, perhaps calling out modern views of wealth and life. The track is a highlight, with some unfamiliar measures and a great structure underpinning its success. The song showcases absolute expertise in builds and transitions, continually swaying in a tidal pattern of volumes. Never chaotic, its free-flowing and ever-changing temperament instead offers a dense, sporadic and true experience.

“Nightingale” allegedly follows the fable of Aesop, in which a king tries to capture a beautiful singing nightingale. The first section of the song is typical of the album, consisting of some ambient pad tones and saxophone droning leading into acoustic riffing. “Will you sing your song” is the low point of some almost tired lyricism, but the lines don’t detract greatly from the listen. An ambient midway break underpins the song’s grandeur – similar to that of Radiohead’s “Motion Picture Soundtrack” (2000). Strings, saxophone, synthesisers, keyboards, and guitars swirl in sadness and madness, perhaps a descending from the orbit the album takes place in, the place where Lee gazes down upon the earth.

Again in a manner recalling Elliott Smith or even Yo La Tengo, the reversed warps at the start of closing track “Thunder Follows” lie under a triplet picking rhythm on acoustic guitar. Building to a crescendo, booming chords are easily transferable to the idea of thunder. The track is certainly one of the best on the record, remaining equally optimistic and sombre through its quick pace and tragic harmony. Emphasised is the line “even when the sky gets drowned out by city lights, we can still try and make out what we are inside”, which provides excellent resolution to the overarching turmoil Lee presents across the record.

The concept and execution of Thunder Follows The Light is to be marvelled. Standout tracks such as “Waves, Breaking” and “Written in Lightning” capture the mind and are truly an experience – a testament to the creative force that is Mutual Benefit. Most tracks are breathtaking on their own, but as a combined and coherent effort, the record gets somewhat tiring.