Album review by Eric Sandberg — Steve Mason (formerly of The Beta Band) About The Light
Steve Mason's catalog presents an aural document of one man's journey from youthful eccentricity (a double-edged sword), isolation, depression and, ultimately, a joyous recovery. The music throughout is the product of a particular kind of genius possessed of an independent musical vision.
The Scottish musician's career began in earnest in 1996 with the formation of The Beta Band (pronounced "Bee-tah) who established themselves with three consecutive critically lauded 4-song EPs. The songs bridged the gaps between pop, electronica and progressive rock with just a smidge of the Bonzos to make it fun.
Their self-titled debut full-length went a tad over the top, opening up with a self-indulgent rap (!) about the history of the band. The Beta Band spent their next two albums recovering from this but ceased to exist after their third release, the astutely titled Heroes To Zeroes which received a big push from EMI but failed to break through, leaving Mason in debt, depressed and reclusive.
After a stint working construction Mason tentatively returned to music releasing an album under the name Black Affair. This was followed two years later by his first solo album under his own name, the critically acclaimed Boys Outside. With the success of Boys Outside Mason relocated from a remote cottage in Scotland, rejoined the human race and set about writing and recording the sprawling and ambitious Monkey Minds In The Devils Time, a dark and dense aural feast inspired by his struggle with crippling depression and political unrest in the UK, particularly the London riots.
Having exorcised his demons on his previous record Mason made his most accessible record to date in Meet The Humans. The album is steeped in electronica with relatively simple melodies and a more positive lyrical approach delivered somewhat tentatively by Mason's pleasingly soft voice.
Late last night a beleaguered Amazon delivery driver finally dropped the brand new Steve Mason album on my porch after driving up and down my street several times during the day. I tore the mailer open with my teeth and was instantly taken by the cover. Let's take a closer look:
What a great cover - the type, the layout, the colors, and that photo by legendary documentary photographer Nick Hedges. The friendship of these girls is palpable, their poses telling. The back cover appears to pay tribute to David Bowie. Released shortly after the third anniversary of his death, the typeface and run-together words duplicate the graphics on Station To Station.
With all the turmoil in the UK over Brexit, The Grenfel tragedy and the Windrush scandal, I wasn't sure what to expect from this album in terms of subject matter but, after several spins, I am very pleased to find, other than the excellent and biting opening track "America Is Your Boyfriend" Steve Mason is still working on himself.
About The Light is Steve Mason's most accomplished album musically. The canny decision to step out of his dark room full of twirly knobs and glowing lights to write and record the record with his touring band pays off. It's really his first album to sound like a professional, bonafide major label recording by an important and seasoned artist. A quick glance at the credits reveals the album was produced by one Stephen Street, who helped shape the sound of The Smiths, Blur and The Cranberries to name a few.
The opening track "America Is Your Boyfriend" hits hard with a tasty brass riff evoking Van Morrison. The lyrics, like all the best rock lyrics are just barely scrutable (I know) enough to allow you to find your own meaning. I got, 'If you get in bed with America you'll find yourself in jail and your boyfriend won't put up the bail money.'
The remaining songs touch on relationships, love and self-reflection. I have no idea what the brooding "Fox On The Rooftops" is about but the lyrics are intriguing.
"I saw the fox after midnight, I found Jesus just too late."
Perhaps the highlight of highlights is the playful "Spanish Brigade" a song that easily trounces Chris Martin at his own game, with another standout being "Walking Away From Love" (see video below).
Throughout the album's ten perfect songs, the live band arrangements are stellar and give Mason's unique songwriting approach a three-dimensional oomph it has lacked previously. Street has also coaxed Mason's strongest vocal performance on record. On each song Mason pushes his soft voice to a soulful timbre he may not have believed he had in him. About The Light is my first new release of 2019 and I can confidently predict that, in December, it will still be in my top ten for the year.
Eric Sandberg: My true opinion on everything is that it's splunge.