To try and categorise Steve Mason’s prolific portfolio as a songwriter would be to contradict the ever-changing nature of his work. Loosely tethered to the realm of folktronica first started with The Beta Band, his various solo projects have all since adhered to a nuanced eclecticism that garners more critical acclaim than commercial success. On his fourth solo outing, Mason once again moves into uncharted territory by trying to capture his live band’s energy amidst the accessible nostalgia of a classic pop-rock sound.
Since releasing music under his own moniker in 2010, Mason has dabbled in downtempo electro-pop, sprawling psychedelic soft rock and alt folk-pop over the space of three compelling albums. Three years on from his buoyant Meet the Humans, About The Light carries on the upbeat aesthetic, albeit venturing into a nostalgic style. Whilst managing to faithfully reproduce and expand upon the sounds of yesteryear, it’s hard to avoid comparing these relatively frivolous pop songs to his more intriguing back catalogue.
An air of foreboding permeates the trumpets and drumroll of album opener “America Is Your Boyfriend”. Refrains of the title littered throughout imply a politically-charged assault on the complacency of the wider world with Trump-era America. Lines such as “a heart with little gold, a soul’s been sold,” convey a Billy Bragg likeness, albeit one we’ve seen before in Mason. With the album’s mission statement being to capture the energy of the live band, the song’s explosive breakdown proves it a worthy cause. The collision of trumpets and drum fills introduce a sound far grander than Mason has divulged before.
“Rocket” is an exhibit of the Scotsman’s diversity, following up with a slower, production-heavy drum track and humming guitar that slinks beneath. Lead licks are given sufficient room to tease out melodies as Mason’s vocals soar with platitudes of lost love; “I’ll put you in my pocket, so when I feel this sad, you give me back the love I had”. Further capitalising on the live band sound, its ethereal arrangement blooms into more potent rock upon the arrival of the driving bass and drums. This is before “No Clue” reinstates a rapid tempo through some fast paced acoustic strums garnished with bright lead guitar arpeggios. Mason’s vocals glide smoothly over frenetic folk-rock elements, creating a contrast in the chorus that soothes without losing momentum.
“About the Light” is a step into Mason’s past with a 90s style marriage of keys and acoustic strums before the country infused twang of the pre-chorus. The infectious, descending melody of the chorus, female backing vocals and solos further add a soulful groove to the title track.
Producer Steven Street is utilised to his full capacity on the two subsequent tracks, seemingly indulging in contrary stylings from the past. “Fox on the Rooftop” presents a languid dreamscape not dissimilar from the psychedelic rock of Echo & the Bunnymen. Adorned by swirly synths and crunchy rhythm guitars that dance between verse and chorus, the magic lies in the densely coloured arrangement that permits the high end from keys, synths and sax. Alternatively, the outrageously eclectic “Stars Around My Heart” presents a stark contrast without escaping the 80s bubble. Mason soars in his catchiest chorus of the album whilst bombastic trumpets, bubbling keys and cheesy distortion compel through the verses.
The muted guitar picking of “Spanish Brigade” kicks off with an energy akin to Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69”, however struggles to go anywhere of merit beyond its main passage. Adding little more to the album than songs which have already come before it, the classic alt-rock track harmlessly peters out amid predictable fills and steady snare hits.
“Don’t Know Where” offers more as a considered, well fleshed-out ballad. Wurlitzer keys provide a foundation from which vibrato guitar licks move from major to minor chords imbuing a melancholic track with a necessary levity. Mason puts in his strongest vocal performance on the record but falls short with lyrical simplicity; “I don’t know where I’m going, I don’t know where I’ve been, I wake up and I scream”.
Second single “Walking Away From Love” offers a brilliant bite of 70s rock n’ roll. With grainy, rhythmic verses playing beside the gospel-like harmonising vocals of the pre-chorus, the song manages to create a perpetual momentum. In a well-balanced arrangement, piano dances amongst the raucous roll of guitar and drums wonderfully underscoring the primary vocal melody of Mason, however it is the weakness of the lyrics again which ultimately undermine its potential.
“The End” fittingly closes things out with an alt-rock sound that permeates the album. Though trumpets add polish to the standard rock arrangement, the song itself, like “Spanish Brigade”, fails to offer anything beyond what has already come before it. Merely serving to solidify the aesthetic of the record, Mason’s final pleading of “don’t fear the end,” only exacerbate its ineffectiveness, feeling skin deep in a world of deeper existential analysis.
Though we have come to expect the unexpected from the quietly unconventional Mason, his movement toward a more mainstream sound still surprises. Whilst the execution of a rock-pop aesthetic is clinically carried out, it doesn’t necessarily make for his strongest outing. Half-baked lyrics hamper the listener from delving deeper. Moreover, the final few songs feel repetitive and unmemorable. Mason hereby manages to pigeonhole himself with an album that, whilst unified, is devoid of any of the intrigue we’ve come to expect.
About The Light is released Friday 18th January via Double Six Records/Domino Recording Company