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“No More Metaphor”

Jordaan Mason & Their Orchestra

Unelectric Arts

The body’s all there is. It’s our only field of contact with the world, the only matrix that can form experience, and we chafe against it so readily. We fumble for ourselves inside it. Few songwriters render the paradoxes, strangleholds, and joys of queer embodiment as luridly as Toronto-based musician Jordaan Mason. A DIY recording artist since high school, they have over the past two decades charted a long-simmering course of work that plunges into the world’s pregnant hum, never shying from pain and never withholding pleasure.

Since releasing the watershed album Divorce Lawyers I Shaved My Head in 2009, Mason has cultivated a devoted following of listeners who have attached deeply to their fevered, idiosyncratic lyrics and bold, gut-lurching orchestrations. Shades of Neutral Milk Hotel, Songs: Ohia, and Xiu Xiu all color their electroacoustic drones. Fans often describe Divorce Lawyers as a life-changing record; it’s the kind of music that helps you plumb the fullness of yourself in its ragged, seeping examinations of wounded intimacy. In the past decade, albums like 2015’s the decline of stupid fucking western civilization and 2018’s Earth to Ursa Major have furthered Mason’s inquiries into complex questions of identity, trauma, alienation, and belonging.

Their newest album, the first credited to Jordaan Mason & Their Orchestra, Rewrite the Words Again gathers the themes and aesthetic strategies of Mason’s prior discography into a newly clarified field. They wrote the songs that appear on the album over a period of two and a half years. “I started going through all these old pieces of writing that I had never finished. It grew from those, and then newer writing started getting added into it, responding to the old writing,” they say. They sent demos of the new songs to their friend, the Berlin-based songwriter and musician Marlene Bellissimo. “She offered to be the Van Dyke Parks to my Joanna Newsom. I was like, how can I say no to that?” Mason says. “I love the arrangements on her records so much. We have a very similar aesthetic and set of sounds that we’re interested in.”

From there, Mason and Bellissimo began reaching out to a far-flung network of collaborators to assemble their orchestra and bring the album into bloom. Long-term musical partners from the Horse Museum — the band that played on Divorce Lawyers — reappear here, as do musicians whose work was formative to Mason’s own practice but whom they had never worked with directly. The New York-based songwriter Ryan Doyle sings on the duet “The City We Loved In,” a glowing remembrance of young gay love inspired by the Magnetic Fields. Folk singer Diane Cluck lends her voice to the eruptive howl-along “Play the Harp Badly,” while Sean Bonnette of AJJ sings harmony on the flowering acoustic number “Still Alive, Singing.”

The song “Hot Burning Stone” holds the gravitational center of the album. “I wrestled with writing that song, because it’s literally just a play-by-play of an event. It describes the moment of watching my neighbor commit suicide. It doesn’t even really talk about the feelings behind the moment,” says Mason. “Rather than trying to explore the actual grief of it too much, it felt right to break it down into the image of what happened, because that’s what was burned into my brain. I just needed to describe it.”

Rewrite the Words Again encircles the idea of loss, grief, and memory as shaping forces. The wakes of things can make us; forgetting and resurfacing can both be creative acts. “I started thinking a lot about the people that I’ve known over the years who I’ve had intense connections with that  were temporary,” Mason says. “There are all these people in your past who end up leaving an impact on you and forming who you become, even though they don’t get rolled into the fabric of your everyday life.” Recordings of some of these people filter through the record.  “Temporary/Wild,” a meditation on the ephemerality of all experience, showcases a tape recording Mason made in high school of a close friend talking about the unknowable nature of death. “I’ve been thinking about death in the many forms that it takes,” Mason says. “It’s not always someone dying; it’s also a relationship dying or falling apart, or people losing touch to the point where they basically become ghosts to each other.”

Everyone carries a map of their experiences in their neurons, nerves, and blood vessels; the places where people have touched us still sting years after their vanishing. Rewrite the Words Again sounds out those craters. It digs down into memory’s negative space and finds what’s sprouting from the holes. Even amid the pieces we feel are missing from ourselves, there are places we can grasp hold of each other. Our emptinesses can be resonating chambers. They can give us the space we need to share sound. Or, as Mason sings on “Play the Harp Badly”: “Letting people in may even bring you some healing / And even if not, then at least you’ll be singing.”
Written by Sasha Geffen