Back with little fanfare after a break of five years since his last album, Willy Mason unfussily shows other young troubadours how it should be done
Willy Mason: Carry On
Fiction, £10.99 Star rating: * * * *
IT IS often said of Willy Mason that he is an old soul. True, this was a more remarkable trait when he first emerged from the unlikely blues delta of Massachusetts eight years ago, just out of his teens, displaying more of a musical affinity with singer/songwriters of yore than his own generation. Since then, teen troubadours Paolo Nutini and Jake Bugg have found mainstream pop success in their own separate ways by rejecting the style of their contemporaries in favour of the sounds of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ record collections
Mason, meanwhile, has been absent from the musical landscape, having chosen to give up touring for a while after the release of his second album, If The Ocean Gets Rough. There was no big statement about a career break, just vague intimations that it was time to go back home and deal with… stuff.
Home is the affluent island community of Martha’s Vineyard – not the most obvious hotbed of musical activity, but both his parents are folk musicians, and Mason has even recorded one of his mother’s songs. Over the past five years, Mason has hung out there, lived (and observed) life, collaborated with others – becoming the guest vocalist of choice for Isobel Campbell and Lianne La Havas – and promoted shows.
And now, at the grand old age of 28, the erstwhile precocious bluesman returns with a degree of forelock-tugging modesty, providing tour support for Ben Howard, taking nothing for granted.
But something has changed. Far from being forgotten, Mason’s reputation and popularity has grown, and armed with a third album as beguiling as Carry On, there is no reason why he cannot just pick up where he left off, winning over hearts and minds without trying too hard.
In his time away, he has grown as a songwriter. There is a quiet attraction at work on Carry On with its simple melodies, unfussy but unexpected arrangements, heartworn lyrics and Mason’s mellow, melancholic baritone voice – it’s not rocket science but it might just be alchemy.
He still sounds like a careworn character but retains the younger man’s imperative to figure out his place in the world. In short, Mason sings as if he’s seen it all and is still trying to make sense of it. He has described Carry On as the “third and final chapter to a particular narrative … that’s loosely based on me”.
He has been assisted in this journey by producer Dan Carey, known for his work with Hot Chip and MIA, so far from an obvious fit for Mason’s more roots-based style but, as it turns out, an inspired choice of collaborator who has gently finessed these songs with a rhythmic je ne sais quoi.
The sound on opening track What Is This is immediately lusher, more resonant and also more enigmatic than the hangdog indie of old, providing a luxurious cushion for Mason’s storytelling and blustery bursts of guitar. And is that a subtle hint of synth glitch in the background?
Such digital developments are sprinkled like seasoning on the songs rather than shoehorned uncomfortably into the arrangements. On Talk Me Down, a digitised junkyard clatter is looped under Mason’s simple country song. The ambling melody on Pickup Truck (not his last reference to such vehicles, nor his last lyric about drifting) is kept in check with a crisp, metronomic beat.
It is a technique used to most intriguing effect on Restless Fugitive, a low, leisurely, reggaeish rumble on which Mason’s sonorous guitar work and unhurried tale of, yup, an unhappy wanderer who comes full circle back to his home town is underpinned with a loping dub rhythm. It’s the atmospheric making of the song, supplying a latent power which is reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s brewing musical storms.
Some songs need no embellishment. The brief intimate blues Show Me The Way and coffee house folk song Into Tomorrow are fine as they are. Mason delivers one of his most affecting melodies to date on Shadows In The Dark, while I Got Gold is a celebration of finding wealth in contentment.
Mason has singled out I Got Gold and Restless Fugitives as cornerstones of his current output, along with the album’s title track, another winning example of his plangent guitar playing and sensitive singing, which is reminiscent of his backporch breakthrough song Oxygen in its simple sagacity.
While many of his pop contemporaries beat their breasts in empty emotional displays, there is nothing angsty or sledgehammer about Mason’s musical questing.
He has returned with an album of believably drawn characters, thoughtful encounters and uncontrived soul-searching, which is a pleasure to partake of. If it takes another five years to ponder his next dispatch, it will be worth the waiting.