Beyond a Song host Rich Reardin singer/songwriter/composer/producer Jordan Lehning. With his utterly absorbing new collection, Little Idols, Lehning has done precisely that. Unfolding over the course of a whirlwind week, the record recounts a brief but passionate love affair between a single man and a married woman who seek shelter in each other’s arms as they grapple with right and wrong, will and fate, connection and commitment. Each song here is its own little scene, a fleeting moment in time in which subtle gestures and furtive glances reveal secret desires and unspoken histories. Set against the backdrop of a devastating flood, the album is a showcase not only for Lehning’s remarkable gifts as a storyteller, but also his considerable talents as a composer, producer, and arranger. The songs are lush and cinematic, with captivating instrumental work that contributes its own narrative propulsion, and the performances are nuanced and evocative to match, fueled by intimate vocals, breathy woodwinds, and sweeping strings. The result is a poignant, literate collection that rewards re-peated listening, a rich, intricate work that calls to mind everything from Brian Wilson and Nick Drake to Rufus Wainwright and Gustav Mahler as it explores what happens when we’re finally stripped of the illusion of control. “I’ve always gravitated towards ambitious albums that tell a cohesive, start-to-finish story,” says Lehn-ing. “You can call it a concept record or whatever you want, but ever since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to that kind of big picture writing.” Born and raised in Nashville, TN, Lehning was first introduced to the transportive power of music by his father, a legendary engineer and producer best known for his work with Randy Travis, George Jones, and Waylon Jennings among others. Though Lehning grew up around country royalty, he developed an early passion for classical and experimental music, and by his teenage years, he was composing string quartets and orchestral arrangements for the sheer fun of it. After studying music in college, he returned to Nashville, where he opened up his own studio and quickly made a name for himself producing for the likes of Caitlin Rose, Rodney Crowell, and Andrew Combs, in addition to writing and tracking string arrangements for Kacey Musgraves, Burt Bacharach, Brett Eldridge, Leon Bridges, and countless others. Lehning continued to play in several bands and perform his own music through the years (he re-leased a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums, Jordan Sings! and Long Live The Dead, in 2018), but he always felt more at home in the studio than on the stage. “I’ve always been the kind of writer who’s just constantly creating,” says Lehning. “It’s never really mat-tered what kind of music I was writing, just that I was writing it, and I wanted people to engage with that writing rather than with me. I wanted to be an invisible part of the process, which is pretty much impos-sible when you’re standing in the spotlight, so I mostly just stay in the studio now.” It was in the studio that Little Idols first began taking shape. Sitting on a handful of semi-written songs, Lehning invited a favorite rhythm section over for a day of live tracking, and while the tunes they tackled that day had always felt sonically cohesive, it wasn’t until recording was well underway that Lehning sensed a broader lyrical story coming together. Conscious of the direction things were headed, he spent the next year developing the narrative, refining the language and arrangements, and writing new music to fill in the gaps. It wasn’t enough to simply have a collection of songs; Lehning knew he needed to supplement his close-up character studies with wide angle, scene-setting instrumentals passages, as well. “I realized pretty early on that this wouldn’t work as a traditional album,” he says. “It all needed to feel like one continuous piece, so I started creating these little interludes and segues to make everything flow seamlessly into everything else.”
If Lehning is starting to sound more like a director than a producer at this point, that’s no coincidence. He drew heavily from the film world in creating Little Idols, immersing himself particularly in the works of Ingmar Bergman, whose focused, deliberate style informed Lehning’s approach to recording. “You have to be patient watching a Bergman film,” he explains. “They’re very still, but they’re brilliant at capturing the quiet amidst the loud. I envisioned this album as something similar, a tonal exploration set within the eye of the storm.” The journey begins with “Oolaloom,” a swirling, kinetic incantation that plays like the opening credits, at once establishing a sense of place and introducing us to our protagonist. It’s a charming, eager tune, with hints of Sufjan Stevens and Patrick Watson, but the off-kilter time signature lends an air of chaos to the music, one that suggests things may soon spiral out of control. (Spoiler alert: they do.) The tender “How You Been” finds our would-be lovers running into each other on the street, and their flirtatious connection quickly leads to the dreamy revelations and darkening skies of “Oh Carolina.” By the time we reach the ecstatic “Passing The Time,” a storm has broken and the tryst has moved from fantasy to reality. “‘Passing The Time’ ends with this huge sonic climax, but then suddenly all the air gets sucked out of the room,” says Lehning. “There’s this jarring moment of emotional vertigo where passion just immedi-ately gives way to panic, and then guilt inevitably sets in.” From there, Lehning’s characters are forced to navigate the aftermath, both of their adultery and of the floodwaters that have risen around them. For different reasons, each lover finds themselves in the midst of an emotional maelstrom. The spare “Little Lie,” for instance, grapples with loneliness and fear of abandonment, while “The Quarry Song” reckons with longing and remorse, and the grand “Treasures Of The Flood” makes peace with impermanence and mortality. In the end, both sides come to accept that their affair can’t continue. Even if it was bliss, even if they’re in love, the overwhelming weight of their guilt is too much to bear. It’s with this recognition that the lights begin to rise and the credits starts to roll. Lehning plays us out with the melancholic “Only That You’re Gone,” a lilting, orchestral waltz that finds our protagonist piecing his life back together in the wake of it all. “When something so dramatic happens, there’s this sense of disbelief that comes with it,” says Lehn-ing, “this sense of asking yourself, ‘Did that really happen?’ The moment these characters shared is gone forever, but the narrator still holds on to these trinkets from their time together, these little idols that remind him it was real.” It’s a suitably bittersweet ending to a story defined by its emotional ambivalence. There are no heroes or villains in Lehning’s writing, only lonely, imperfect human beings reaching out for connection, howev-er fleeting it may be. Like the affair itself, Little Idols is brief, but unforgettable.
Musical selections include: The Quarry Song, Little Lie, Myna Bird, Oh My Love, Oolaloom, Only That You're Gone, Oh Carolina
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