Devon Welsh writes songs and lyrics in Majical Cloudz. His opinions are neither to be taken seriously nor to be trusted.
To me, Mutual Benefit’s debut Love’s Crushing Diamond is foremost about the constant passage of momentary time and the recognition of this as the proper condition for loving. Self-love and love for others always occurs within this flowing “strong river” (to borrow the title of this album’s opening track), and the lyrical themes of the album bring to mind the observation pioneering philosopher and psychologist William James discussed in his groundbreaking tome Principles of Psychology: “The stream of thought flows on; but most of its segments fall into the bottomless abyss of oblivion. Of some, no memory survives the instant of their passage. Of others, it is confined to a few moments, hours or days. Others, again, leave vestiges of which are indestructible, and by means of which they may be recalled as long as life endures.” Jordan Lee, the Brooklyn via Columbus, St. Louis and Boston songwriter who serves as Mutual Benefit’s visionary and only steady member, has written an elegy for the people and moments that are destined to flow on without leaving a trace, and a paean to those memories that are indestructible.
A quote attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus came to mind as I listened to these songs and read the lyrics: “One cannot step twice into the same river, nor can one grasp any mortal substance in a stable condition, but it scatters and again gathers; it forms and dissolves, and approaches and departs.” Over the course of Love’s Crushing Diamond, Lee offers a report of one human being living in this river.
“Strong River” is a sonic rushing body of water. Within the first minute we are introduced to the soft, droning tones of the strings arrangements, one of the crucial building blocks of the sonic palette of Diamond…. Not only the rest of the instrumentation but the whole world of the album somehow sticks together as a result of their presence. The strings are the articulated essence of both the instrumental and lyrical intentions of these songs. Their signification is multivalent: they are the powerful currents of “Strong Swimmer”; the air currents creating flight in “Advanced Falconry”; the march of time itself in “Golden Wake”; the wind blowing through the motel room drapes in “That Light That’s Blinding.” In every case they are suggestive and powerful.
“Strong River” also introduces the lyrical theme of flux and the ways it conditions human identity and desire. In case of inevitable separation or disappearance, Lee’s unnamed subject writes a note for whomever it may concern. I prefer to interpret the lyrics in a way that suggests the content of the note is simply, “The river only knows to carry on.” No need to bother explaining, Lee seems to suggest. All that is needed are cryptic instructions on how to get over the absence you are feeling.
Time can be a master that dictates the rhythms of life – giving commands to wake at the same hour to go to work at the same place, imposing an obligation to show evidence of progress, but on “Golden Wake” Lee rejects time’s strictures. He takes control of himself by listening closely to his own desires and rejecting the uncertainty that would stand in his way. We sometimes fill up time with routines to avoid confrontation with the reality of flux; Lee seems to indicate that respect for oneself is achieved by dwelling in “empty hours,” passing time freed from the compulsions that are often merely the answer to fear.
The way in which, per Heraclitus’ conception, all mortal substances are continuously approaching and departing is an appropriate metaphor with which to think about “Advanced Falconry.” Lee’s subject is love’s surrender to the evanescence of human connection, the “rare grace” of a human being passing through one’s life and leaving an unforgettable memory. Lee’s muse is radiant and unattainable, perceptive but never stationary long enough to be anything but mysterious. His song is a declaration from the flux. “I won’t forget the way she flies.” Lee is aware that the magic of attraction can render segments of time indestructible. He doesn’t hear what she says so softly to him, but she has already done what love can do, making one of an infinite number of passing moments indestructible. She flies on, but the important thing is that Lee will remember.
If “Advanced Falconry” is about love’s tentative victory over the empty march of time, “The Light That’s Blinding” is a bitter elegy for someone who succumbed to hopelessness, as time seemed to become a dead, eventless horizon. Like Lee in “Golden Wake,” the subject of the song renounces the regular rhythms of life, but it is an act of weakness rather than of strength. Lee sings, “To go a year without dreaming/until it seems that there’s nothing new.” Self-abasement and the self-destruction that can accompany it do not happen overnight, they grow imperceptibly over time until, by the time it is obvious, it is also too late.
“That Light That’s Blinding” is a temporal account; it’s not a snapshot, it’s a flip-book. The present can become so heavily weighted by the past and the future that it becomes “crushing.” Lee is mourning a person paralyzed by the view of where the river vanishes into the horizon; their eyes are focused on something a thousand yards away instead of just below, at the water rushing around them.
The place described by Lee in “Let’s Play/Statue of a Man” seems like the logical sequel to the events of “Golden Wake.” In the latter, Lee resolves to take back control of his place in the flux; in the former, Lee describes traveling on a train through a landscape full of the imagery of the isolated and the inanimate. He sees a rusted statue still standing in a deserted industrial town, and an abandoned hermit’s cave. In each case these locations seem reanimated by the perspective Lee and his fellow traveler bring to them. Lee is there for fun; he observes that their bodies seem “so temporary” and he reacts to this simply by opening his eyes.
If “Let’s Play/Statue of a Man” is a song primarily about presence, then “C.L. Rosarian” is a further affirmation of the importance of this concept, this time in the context of love. Lee seems to want to tell you that when a moment is beautiful, just be there, because when you think about it, it’s already over. When he sings, “It seems that beauty can be hard to find/when you try to freeze a moment in your mind,” I don’t think for a moment that he is sad. Even when he acknowledges that the object of his affection could never stay, he seems understanding. The inevitability of their leaving is just as uncontrollable as the love he feels. It all floats downstream anyway among bells and strings in the last quarter of the song.
On “Strong Swimmer,” the last track of the album, Lee suggests that even attending to the ever-changing nature of both thought and reality does not exclude one from the effects of this flux. Pointing out the problem does not make it go away. Someone who Lee knew as a strong swimmer still was the victim of the current. They became unrecognizable through the ravages of time. It suggests that, despite James’ insistence on the potential “indestructibility” of certain experiences kept in memory, what is remembered is not what is preserved physically. The ravages that time takes on people, on towns, on love — they are all ravages on the integrity of memories, both personal and collective. The faces of friends Lee preserves in his mind come closer and closer to fantasies as these friends age or disappear, never to be seen again. The faces in Lee’s mind become unbound from the reality before him, which is always in flux.
What was the introduction to the album is reprised at the end, and in its new place seems like a possible solution to the problem of time that Lee has circled throughout Love’s Crushing Diamond. Lee sings, “I clear my mind of joy and sorrow/river doesn’t know tomorrow/rolls along with such simplicity.” In the end he is rejecting the way memory can be used to claim ownership over aspects of experience. The only answer I can find in Lee’s words is a continual return to the present, an attitude that does not seek to hold on but to “carry on.”