Sunday, August 25, 2013

Album Review: Willy Mason - Carry On

Album Review: A-
If persevering were as simple as well-intentioned pop stars make it sound, we’d all be fireworks, shooting stars, or whatever turgid metaphor is burning up the Billboard Hot 40 these days. Of course, Willy Mason probably knows this as well as anybody. A full six years after his sophomore release, If The Ocean Gets Rough, the burgeoning folk artist is back with his follow-up Carry On, and though it’s a triumph, it’s an altogether darker, sadder one. The complex array of thoughts Mason weaves into his upbeat collection of psychedelic folk tunes adds life-affirming dimension, a stirring addition to any music lover’s library.

For what's ultimately an uplifting listen, it's strange how the opening mood of Carry On is one of quiet apocalypse. “What Is This” offers a dire rundown of the status quo: the trees are dying, the economy’s gone down the drain, and sadly, Mason notes, our trust in one another as humans has begun to erode. This strain of lonely despair is a common feeling to have, and an even more common one to sing about, but Mason’s tremendous use of instrumentation brings new life to old themes. The faint buzz of synths in the background brings the seedy undertone of his Apocalypse Soon To Come to life, while the guitars pack a resigned wistfulness—and yet they also assert Mason’s one brief flicker of passion, when he punctuates each stanza with a pointed question: “Are we even trying?”

Yeah, Mason’s not taking any of this lying down, at least not before thinking long and hard about it. Subsequently, much of Carry On walks a thin line between mourning and dancing, the oddly hypnotic “Pickup Truck” serving as Exhibit A. Bits and pieces of shattered guitar chords buzz like so many angry vultures around rotting prey, yet the crunchy drum beats approach campfire celebration, while the piano plods away, almost indifferent to the whole charade. Mason sides with the piano himself, wondering, “If we’re all dying, what makes us distinct?” He continues his existential crisis on “Talk Me Down”, where his puppy dog vocals and the chattering bongo drums almost sound hapless: “It’s just another phase,” he resigns himself in the middle of one verse. It’s evidence of a truly talented songwriter that he can pull so many clashing emotions and elements together and weave them into such a vibrant fabric, where even detachment sounds earnest and maybe even vital.

He doesn’t need a lot of thread to bridge these ideas, either: Mason’s minimalist streak is one of Carry On’s strongest suits, showing instrumentation that’s restrained but remarkably emotive. The gentle “Into Tomorrow” reinforces its themes of starting again with busy hi-hats and soft percussive strokes, as if Mason and friends are stretching out a blanket for us to leap onto. The violins swelling in the background are so muted they practically operate at a subliminal level, but they add a stirring dimension to his uplifting belief that darkness is the “one place we can share a home.” He’s also capable of more chilling effects, as on "Painted Glass,” where the choir is less a jubilant affirmation than a collection of ghouls casting shade on his lonely ruminations. And frankly, sometimes these tunes are just too damned pleasant to ignore: "Shadows In The Dark" is self-doubt and isolation wrapped in a blanket of sunny guitar strokes and chunky bongos, so cozy any listener would be loath to leave from the embrace Mason offers.

Another one of Mason’s subtle strengths as a songwriter is his penchant for quiet but persistent rhythms, which create a communal vibe without sacrificing intimacy. On the six-minute “Restless Fugitives,” he builds uses repetition to make a heartwarming point: each verse builds on the last, but he always returns to the same refrain, and the rhythms stay steady throughout as if to reinforce this idea of reliability. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s "I Got Gold," which blows through no less than three verses in two minutes, carried by a bustling mishmash of kick-and-snare that brings Mason's thoughts of moving forward into action.

Of course, all of this would be for naught if Mason himself weren’t also a very good singer-songwriter: good thing, then, that he is. With each soft heave and cracked burst of his weathered tenor, he finds slivers of light in his bleak stories, like on the title track, where he has nothing but his guitar and storytelling chops to fall back on here. Nonetheless, he spins a yarn so dark and uplifting many listeners will shed a tear or two. It’s the most sincere moment on the album, the host laying his thoughts bare with nothing to hide behind; it’s also the purest example of the flickers of compassion and hope illuminating the murky corners of Carry On.

Pretenses of critical objectivity aside, it's challenging for me to pinpoint just what makes Willy Mason's music so special, even after twenty-something listens. But I can't deny the hold it has on me or the talent on display here. These can be dark times, and it helps when somebody's there with a light to guide us back home.

Track Listing
1. What Is This
2. Pickup Truck
3. Talk Me Down
4. Restless Fugitives
5. Show Me The Way To Go Home
6. Into Tomorrow
7. I Got Gold
8. Painted Glass
9. Shadows In The Dark
10. Carry On
11. If It's The End

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