A gentle album that is as gorgeous as it is therapeutic.
Skipping stones is an activity for the young, appealing to the reflective and contemplative. But it’s a futile endeavor; the stones will sink after creating but a momentary disruption in the water. Yet the simple act is relaxing, and for the navel-gazers among us, bears a quiet beauty. The solemn meditation of this act, which serves as the cornerstone of Mutual Benefit’s latest album, mirrors the dreamy haze that Jordan Lee’s music creates. A blend of glimmering synths, strings and acoustics create an orchestral folk sound that, paired with Lee’s soft vocal, makes for a gentle album that is as gorgeous as it is therapeutic.
While the band’s previous album, Love’s Crushing Diamond, was expansive, its seven tracks frequently running five and even seven minutes long in the case of “Strong Swimmer,” Skip a Sinking Stone collects 12 brief dreamscapes. Most tracks bleed into each other, synths and layered cooing from Lee enveloping the listener. On the one hand, that makes the album more cohesive. On the other, short, tranquil tracks like “Closer, Still” and “Nocturne” that, by their nature, make no attempt to have a forceful impact, are mere lulling interludes. Like the sinking stone, they are impermanent, but they linger nonetheless. It’s languid and bucolic to an extreme.
That said, Lee makes quite the statement when he does choose to unleash his restrained arrangements. “Skipping Stones” mimics a slow-rolling river with its waves of piano chords but conveys the bevy of emotions that accompany new love with a dramatic eruption of cymbals and strings. “Lost Dreamers” lilts along with its swelling violins and cellos, the serenity made childlike with the addition of a xylophone and an almost tropical percussion. But “Not for Nothing” is the obvious choice for a first single; opening with a loping, strummed guitar, the song quickly becomes a folky piano ballad about embracing loss for the emotional growth we glean from it.
The hopeful optimism of “Not for Nothing” ties into the thematic through line of the album and the recurring metaphor of that skipping stone. “Skipping Stones” begins Lee’s dirge with the defeatist line “I’m so afraid to fall in love again/ I know how it ends,” only to follow it up with “If I try and skip a sinking stone/ Maybe it’ll be the one that goes/ Forever as it starts its flight/ Towards the horizon line.” By final track “The Hereafter,” not only does the stone sink, but Lee’s falsetto strains as he admits “And it sinks/ It always does/ It goes further down and further down/ To murky depths where light is found.” What begins with optimism ends in resignation, but Lee’s resolute calm – in his demure voice and his arrangements – prevents a reading that would see him losing any of that initial optimism by the end. There is, after all, light at the bottom of the pond.
The circular nature of Skip a Sinking Stone has an even greater impact given Lee’s ultimate revelation. The interval between skipping that stone and watching it inevitably sink comes to truly represent Lee’s meditation on the demise of his relationship. He gets lost in dreams and recognizes his slow march toward acceptance. Still, as he says in “Skipping Stones,” “It takes more than just a fleeting dream/ To set us free.” As a holistic album, Skip a Sinking Stone isn’t a fleeting dream. It’s a journey from one emotional state to another, and emotional revelations are rarely permanent. You fall back on old regrets, experience heartbreak anew and relearn that when you skip a stone, the end result appears the same but the water is forever changed.