It takes a true optimist to see the upside of a wildfire. Throughout Growing at the Edges, the bottomlessly tender fourth album from his baroque indie project Mutual Benefit, Jordan Lee conjures angry skies, scorched earth, and suffocating smoke, yet somehow the destruction only strengthens his sense of serenity and wonder. In Lee’s world, every catastrophe is an opportunity for regrowth and renewal. As he spells it out hopefully on the title track, “Peeking from a seed, where there was a wasteland, something new.”
Lee sees a kindred spirit in that charred soil, as he avails himself of new mindsets and healthier outlooks in the face of change. The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter spent five years writing these songs, but he insists it was only late in the process that he realized he was writing a love album—which is wild, given how impossible it is to listen to Growing at the Edges and miss the romance. The entire album is blanked in a lavender haze. Between Lee’s chivalrous quiver and the serenading string arrangements, every song lands like a softly blown kiss in a silent film.
The florid accompaniments of Mutual Benefit’s previous records carry over, but Growing at the Edges bears a much more pronounced imprint of jazz and classical, in no small degree due to the input of multi-instrumentalist Gabriel Birnbaum and violinist/string arranger Concetta Abate. Lee says he took inspiration from his time listening to New York jazz radio during the pandemic, and if that makes him sound like a tourist, he demonstrates an aficionado’s appreciation of the genre’s subtleties. The record is never more serene than when he clears space to revel in the gentle explorations of Birnbaum’s saxophone.
In their brushed drums and blushing upright bass, Growing’s most serene tracks evoke the levitating rhythms of Richard Davis and Connie Kay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. There are shades, too, of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon and Willie Nelson’s Stardust in the delicate, tuxedo-tailed twang of “Beginner’s Heart” and “Little Ways.” And in the watchmaker’s intricacy of its arrangements, there are echoes of Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimist, albeit with none of the tension or toil. Grizzly Bear’s songs always showed their work; they wanted you to hear the protractors and composition books involved in their meticulous creation. Mutual Benefit’s songs are no less exactingly composed, yet they offer the illusion they materialized from dreams.
One way to enjoy the record is to marvel at its sheer precision—how each song stands alone as its own perfectly bundled bouquet, even while their shared lyrical and musical motifs form the impression of a seamless suite. But for all its craftsmanship, this is an album that thinks with its heart. “I love how you will dance around the entire room to a song that only you hear,” Lee swoons on the waltzing “Wasteland Companions,” and in some ways the whole record feels like his attempt to honor the free spirit modeled by his partner—to turn off his overactive brain and indulge the possibility of hope, even in a world where so much can and does go wrong.
Over the last decade and a half, it’s been easy to become inured to records as gorgeous as this. As indie pop matured from the busted symphonics of Elephant 6 into the conservatory-trained chamber music of artists like Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and San Fermin—and as the stray string accompaniments that periodically graced indie projects swelled into full ensembles—it grew harder be wowed by the grandeur and sophistication of it all. So perhaps Growing at the Edges’ greatest trick is rekindling the sense of romance and connection all that splendor can evoke. Its arrangements are lavish but never demanding, vibrant but never loud, decadent but never distracting. They do so much, yet never so much that they risk disrupting the record’s carefully understated sense of enchantment.
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