Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Jackson Square by Mason Jennings

Jackson Square

Written and performed by Mason Jennings. You can listen to the studio version here and check out YouTube for countless live versions. You can buy the song from iTunes here and the album Boneclouds here.

An odd, moving song with music breezy as a day at the beach and a story sad enough to make you stop and cry. The strumming guitar and twinkling piano float like a Jack Johnson song, yet the lyrics tell a song of heartbreak and sorrow. It opens with our narrator sitting with a loaded gun at a little graveyard, seven police cars headed his way.   He makes one plea:

Just because you say it doesn’t make it true
You can say that I’m guilty man I just don’t care
You can burn my body black
Just don’t make me go back to Jackson Square

Guilty of what? And what happened at Jackson Square? Like any good storyteller, he has us hooked. And what unfurls is a story of love gained and loved lost.

We’re cast back to New Orleans and young love:

I met you on Decatur Street
With your little bare feet and your violin
I was walking by with my guitar in my hand
You smiled at me and I jumped right in

The telling is so easy and deft, her bare feet and the matching of guitar and violin. It borders on the trite – yes, they make good music together – yet the openness of the music and singing lets us believe, lets us smile. He doesn’t merely fall for his musical nymph, he jumps right in, an echo of the an exuberant line on another song from the same album, “If You Ain’t Got Love.” Jennings quickly captures the way that the intense relationship becomes all-encompassing:

Before I knew it you were all I knew
Every moment together was an answered prayer

The music and lines of love seem so happy, yet we now form the opening lines that a darkness would come. So we hear:

Then one day everything changed
Your eyes got strange, you didn’t seem yourself
You’d go to tell a story and you’d start out fine
Halfway through it you’d be somewhere else

The imagery is both common – the troubled eyes – and insightful, as she loses the ability to tell her story, to make sense of the world. Jennings uses dreams to make sense of what is happening:

And I started having the strangest dream
I held a string and looked up in the air
And you were glowing with the strangest light
Drifting out of sight over Jackson Square

His love drifts away and there’s nothing he can do, nothing he can grasp. Where once she was the barefoot singer in the square, now she’s sailing overhead. We have some images of a troubled relationship (she’s crying behind the bathroom door), but soon we learn more about the object of his love:

She says, she hears spirits all around the room
And they’re telling her things that make her feel scared
I have no idea what to do
Before we’re in over our heads in Jackson Square

The songwriter is not a clinician, more a correspondent for the heart, telling of desire and loss, tracing the path to desolation and helplessness. He’s prepared us for the tragedy that will come:

I woke up with a weight on my chest
People were screaming on the street below
I reached for you, I was alone in the bed
Wind was blowing through an open window

As he did earlier in the song, Jennings turns to dream-like imagery to make sense of the narrator’s experiences:

Suddenly I was very old
In a little boat, absolutely nowhere
Staring at the side of the universe
And your tiny body down on Jackson Square

We need to finish the arc kicked off by the imagery from the start of the song.

Now don’t tell me that there ain’t no end
There damn well is and it waits in the wings
I see you kneeling there at center stage
In your tiny cage made of angel wings

While I’m here every night
Loading my gun and trying not to go there
Anyone who says that life is clear
Has never seen a mirror or been to Jackson Square

We are back at the gravesite but now we understand who lies there and perhaps why the narrator sits with loaded gun. And we understand why he’d rather burn to black then head back to Jackson Square.

In the end, the music that opened so light and breezy falls away. It could only carry us so far. Jennings sings the last verses virtually a cappella punctuated with lone discordant piano notes. When he finishes with the some “yeah, yeahs” and the full band, the final words music becomes almost an incantation to sail away from Jackson Square.


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