Since recording his debut album in his living room, Mason Jennings has made the best of his DIY aesthetic, which brings a degree of intimacy and warmth to his otherwise conventional singer-songwriter style. On Minnesota, that warmth and personable tone pay dividends, as many of the songs on Jennings’s ninth album are often pretty for the sake of being pretty, and the tempo often slows to a crawl, so the album benefits from having a believable first-person character. Still, Minnesota is effective in evoking particular moments in time and specific places, and it’s a likably “homey” kind of record.
The majority of the album is grounded in Jennings’s competent but unremarkable piano playing, with occasional flourishes of more interesting instruments to give texture to his arrangements. The electric organ figure that runs throughout the refrain of “No Relief” is particularly effective, creating a contrast between the song’s dirge-like verses and its sprightly chorus. On “Raindrops on the Kitchen Floor,” however, the use of organ and choral backing vocals only heighten the obvious debt the song owes to the Beatles. With its simplistic but sweetly sung hook and light-hearted tone (“You know that it’s true/This heart was made for you”), the song scans as a long-lost McCartney B-side.
Unfortunately for Jennings, there really isn’t anything about his songwriting that’s distinctive enough to overcome comparisons to much bigger names. “Clutch” starts off as a tedious bit of cabaret-pop that apes the melody of Burt Bacharach’s “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself,” with an uptempo B section built around some awkward turns of phrase. “Hearts Stop Beating” includes several clumsy lines that don’t match the song’s meter, and Jennings gives the song a jangly production wash that sounds badly dated, like it should be included on an ‘80s one-hit wonder compilation.
It’s the handful of tracks on which Jennings stretches beyond familiar troubadour conventions that are Minnesota‘s best. He spins a compelling narrative with the protracted metaphor of “Rudy,” while the double-tracked, mambo-inspired rhythm arrangement on “Well on Love” is well matched to the song’s cockeyed romantic tale. “Witches Dream” makes great use of a distorted, electric strings section to create an ominous vibe that supports the song’s nonlinear structure.
Even when the songs are less inspired, as on “Wake Up” or the dreary “Bitter Heart,” which opens the record on a dour note from which it never fully recovers, Jennings’s recording technique is top-notch. Working from his own home studio, Jennings allows every instrument to ring through fully, capturing a full-bodied, polished sound and making Minnesota a beautiful sounding album. By foregrounding his vocal tracks in the mix of each song, Jennings gives the album the feeling of a live performance, which complements his lovely, if somewhat slight, tenor (he sounds like Fran Healy of Travis to the point of distraction) and brings a sense of warmth to Minnesota.