Monday, September 26, 2016

Skip a Stone, Let it Sink

It's a sad truth that the vast majority of romantic relationships eventually fail. The oft-quoted statistic is that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but how many more millions of couples split before they even get as far as the wedding? What are the true chances that any given relationship will last until one person dies?

At the beginning of Mutual Benefit's new album Skip a Sinking Stone, we find Jordan Lee (the man at the centre of this ever-shapeshifting musical project) reeling from a relationship that unfortunately didn't work out. As he tosses pebbles into a vast lake, he wonders if he'll ever be able to fall in love again, and he observes that making a relationship stick is like trying to skim a stone: some of them sink straight away, while some hop along briskly for a little while before running out of steam and disappearing into the water after all.

When you embark upon a new relationship, you're hoping against hope that, this time, the pebble will bounce away over the horizon and somehow keep going forever - unlike all the failed skimming stones cluttering up the foreground of the CD cover.

"I'm so afraid to fall in love again, I know how it ends...if I try to skip a sinking stone, maybe it'll be the one that goes forever."

Sinking Stone isn't a break-up album; it's an album about that part *after* the break-up where you come out of your room and once again open yourself up to the possibility that you'll find true love yet. However, as we hear over the course of the album, this isn't necessarily a quick process, nor a smooth one.

Jordan Lee meets someone new and he seems to like them a lot, going on long walks and often feeling that he's tantalisingly close to forgetting the past and starting fresh. However, his feelings are clouded over by a lingering cynicism that he simply can't shake: "If there's one thing that I know," he sings on Getting Gone, "it's that all good times go." Even as he falls deeper in love with this other, unnamed person, he worries that their whole tryst is just a "slow march towards a dark place", presumably because that's exactly what his previous relationship looks like in hindsight.

Lushly arranged and delicately played, this whole album shimmers and sparkles just like a lake, daring you to pick up a stone of your own and see if you can skim it all the way to the horizon and beyond. Floating in the middle of those twinkling, dazzling waters is Not for Nothing, the album's centrepiece and my personal highlight. This track sounds noticeably earthier, poppier, and less ethereal than the songs that surround it, and it comes across as a kind of hope spot, a sliver of land peeping over the edge of the daunting, sprawling water after many days at sea.

In Not for Nothing, Jordan Lee is still swimming in doubt and fear, but as the title suggests, there's a sense that this particular romance may not be all for naught. And towards the end of the album, he has a bit of an epiphany - here's a lyrical excerpt from penultimate track Fire Escape:

"And underground on the JMZ
Where subway rats run behind beams
I remember something you told me
That nothing worth it is ever easy"

I love the stone-skipping metaphor that raises the curtain on this album, but by the conclusion of Skip a Sinking Stone, Lee has realised that he needs to stop thinking of his relationships as pebbles on a pond and abandoning them as soon as they plop beneath the surface. That moment isn't the end of the story, it's just the end of the honeymoon period - the point at which things start to get deeper, and that fluttery butterfly-stomach feeling solidifies into something stronger and more hard-wearing.

That's the lesson that Lee has learned by the time he revisits the stone analogy on final track The Hereafter, and he and his collaborators deliver the moral in elegant, grandiose chorus:

"Skip a stone across the pond...let it sink, it always does. It goes further down and further down, to murky depths where light is found..."

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