I was surprised to see that no-one here had already reviewed Willy Mason's debut album, Where the Humans Eat. Recently released officially in the U.K., the album showcases the outstanding and undeniable talents of the 20-year-old singer/songwriter. After escaping from the closed community of Martha's Vineyard - where he grew up and was encouraged at an early age to follow his parents into music - Willy ambled around the U.S., and ended up in New York City. With his acoustic guitar as his lone company, Mason grew as a musician and a person after witnessing the severe and disturbing realities, of homelessness and poverty, which New York presented. Soon, he was signed up by Conor Oberst (from Bright Eyes) to Conor's new project, Team Love, and has since opened for Death Cab for Cutie, Ben Kweller and the 22-20's. After the release of two EPs, Mason collected together tracks for his debut album which was released in the fall of 2004 in the U.S. and later in the spring of 2005 in the UK. While seeing him live in London after being enraptured by Oxygen, I bought this remarkable album.
I cannot possible describe how stunned and, frankly, taken aback by the honesty and clarity in Mason's visions. He engenders a sense of empowerment, and talks of the rising and necessary voice of the youth, and attempts to combat the political and social apathy of youth. While not, by his or my definition, a politically-motivated artist, Mason's lyrics bite deep into the lifestyles of the youth, and yet comprehends the continual struggle of growing up and becoming motivated by things around you. As he says, "It's tempting to fight when you know that you're right," and this level of rooted communication, some say beyond his age, has won him cross- and inter-generation support. And, while many critics have focused on his song-writing abilities, which some critics have, as is usual of many rising alt-country/rock musicians, compared to Dylan or others, Mason's guitar-playing skills are also very good. While technically he cannot compare to more eminently experienced players, there is evidently a strong sense of passion and force behind his playing that, with the aforesaid support of his strong lyrical ability, creates a powerful force. Don't get me wrong, he his wonderful on the guitar and the musical aspect of the songs exudes sheer quality, however his album is selling on it's lyrical content, not solely his instrumental ability. He is often supported by his 17-year-old brother, Sam, on the drums, as he is on this album. However, I have found that Mason is better without the support of his brother, and when I saw him in a tiny venue, he was excellent playing on a tiny stage with only an acoustic guitar. The album is relatively short, and yet is able to somewhat capture the rawness and striking nature of Mason's musical ability.
The first song, Gotta Keep Moving, is a powerful blues/rock first track. With a quick and up-beat tempo, it is a wonderful song to start the album with and demonstrates a strong technical ability on the guitar. His brother is instrumental on the drums, which really provide a solid backing for Mason's rhythmic singing, the chorus of which becomes strong with the repetition of "Gotta keep moving, with a troubled mind a'following'. It is more up-beat than most of the songs here, which can get very moving and quiet rhythmically, despite Willy Mason's words shining through. When he talks, there is a compelling sense of instant familiarity that makes one listen. However, on this track, he almost shouts the chorus through, forcing you to being to listen to his dry, and yet idealistic thoughts. It is rare to find a musician that has something worthwhile to say, socially and politically, without the words provoking suicidal thinking. This song demonstrates his ability to make you stand up and speak out and comprehend your own relevance, not hide in a corner and wallow in self-pity and doubt.
All you can do starts with a catchy tune, however I find that it becomes quite broken, and stuttered with the introduction of the repeating drum cut. The song is very strong lyrically however, and the title of the track relates to how, despite the evident, incomprehensible, and apparently unending problems we are all met with. Initially, he allegorizes this concept, talking of the life of a homeless person, another sign of his experience with the homeless of New York. He talks of the spread of apathy, despair and unjustified-cynicism throughout our society, stating that "Hopelessness is on the TV/Infecting sea to shining sea". Indeed, after about a minute the song enters a second phase, which I quite like from a musical perspective. While it may appear that Mason's lyrics are simply there to dictate, and hence condescending and thick with pretense, it becomes clear this isn't the case, as each and every song, perhaps stemming from Mason's young and innocent sounding voice, seems to be spoken in a humble and unassuming tone.
Still a Fly is a beautiful song, and while Sam remains quite on the drums, retains a strong sense of rhythm from Mason's guitar and voice. While lyrically this song is clever, and attempts to combat the condescending nature of the world to dismiss the individual, particularly the youth. However, I find he pushes this through a bit too much, and the song, for me, takes on a level of pretense that remains problematic, for me. Reading the opinions of other critics, they enjoy this song and claim that it forces through the sense of agedness and wisdom seen by this young musician. In any case, this very compliment totally undermines the vision of Mason, that every individual has an important message, and that he is not special, that the youth of today has an intellectual importance. For example, he talks of how people have dismissed him, saying "You shouldn't read Dostoevsky at your age". Personally, I don't like this song lyrically, and musically I don't particularly enjoy it either.
The next track, Where the Humans Eat is from which the albums title is derived. It is dreamy, and this is achieved by the over-emphasis of the percussion and bass, while his acoustic guitar takes a lesser role. The lyrics are somewhat less monumental than his other tracks, and instead take on the somewhat manic concept of Mason talking to his cat, and the title itself, comes from something his mother said to the cat. This song is much grounded, and is playful, but I don't understand why the album, and indeed the press and promotional material behind Mason takes on this theme as its centre-piece. It is clear that Mason loves his pets, and in particular his dog, which emphasizes a sense of humanity and comfort that evidentially stem from his upbringing in the closed communities of Martha's Vineyard.
Next comes Fear No Pain, another timeless track, which remains a simple song. The lyrics are simple, and yet confident and well-spoken. The musical aspects remain simple to, and while this song is somewhat of a filler song, it remains a good bridge between the earlier and the later, more heavyweight, tracks. The drumbeat is strong and rhythmic, and gives the song a solid and somewhat powerful foundation.
Hard Hand to Hold is one of my personal favorite songs on the album. It is commanding and robust, both lyrically, and from the percussion and narration by Mason. Again, the focus of the track is on the homeless of the world, and he attempts to break the distrust and fear of the homeless, by society in general. Too, it is a song for those less-affluent or engaged in some struggle, and it attempts to confirm that yes, it is hard to hold on sometimes. However, from this concession, his empowering lyrics later in the song bring the song back to Mason's best. This underlying theme is not to dominate the album in so far that one should buy this CD because it's some sort of motivational guide. Quite, as this song demonstrates, the lyrics, the music, all of the aspects of this album are both beautiful and poignant, and yet upbeat, fresh, sometimes fun, and powerful. While generally I dislike the implementation of excessive percussion on this album, I think that the percussion adds a greater sense of rhythm to the song, without perhaps showing the simplicity of the rhythm itself, as occurs on a number of other tracks.
Letter #1 is a dark, instrumental mixture reminiscent of many Tom Waits' tracks, and while alone it doesn't stand up well as a musical track, it is an interesting addition album and offers a vision of some other stuff Mason is capable of. Personally, I'm not overly keen on it as I find it difficult to consider Mason's soft voice in a shadowy and sinister manner as it is here. In fact, Mason's voice, sonically anyways, remains almost a complete anathema of Waits'.
Sold my Soul is a very good song. It slowly builds, and yet has a very catchy tune. Despite this, I find that, lyrically, this song isn't going to be one that you're going to be repeating to yourself again and again. The words themselves are very weird and twisted, and it isn't the sort of simple, catchy melody that you'll sing again. However, despite this, the song has that wonderful superb and forcible Mason quality. It is definitely blues-y and makes references to the artists that Mason has based his music on, John Lee Hooker amongst others. Mason's voice is definitely timeless, and while this song is obviously somewhat raw, it remains very well produced. Mason himself said that he never had more than three takes when recording a song on the album, in an effort to preserve any roughness and primitiveness while still accurately representing the song. This song is a great example of this. Also, it is a great example of the wonderful sense of rhythm Mason is able to generate without the use of percussion. In fact, I find the songs without percussion more powerful and rhythmic than those with, which is a stunning idiosyncrasy of Mason and explains his wonderful live performances during his recent ambling tours around small venues here in the UK.
"Is that a guitar or a machine-gun?" shouts Mason at the beginning of the 9th track, Our Town. This is a wonderful story of the exclusion that Mason felt when he was arrested, wrongly, in New York City. The song is nice and catchy, and finds Mason almost shouting at moments. It is definitely quite a 'loud' song; this is achieved with extensive use of bass and percussion. I find it wanders off a bit sometimes in the middle somewhere, but, for the first time in the album, we see a catchy tune with a nice little melody. I think that Mason depicts accurately the problems of closed-knit communities, in that they can be quite socially exclusive. More than this though, Mason follows the normal alt route and slurs police and their often discriminatory use of excessive violence and power. This is definitely quite a accessible and funky song, and again demonstrates Mason's ability to perform all measures of musical forms. The bass is quite well employed in this song, considering it is generally under-used on the album (not to say that in a pejorative manner. In fact, many of the beautiful elements of the songs are achieved simple with the simplicity of Mason's music, and there is often no need to generate more rhythm).
So Long is a fun, up-beat song that is also very catchy. During this part of the album, the songs become more accessible, without removing some of the biting aspects of the lyrics. However, this song is relatively straightforward and minimal. The focus remains on the attractive melody, which is well complimented by good drumming from Sam Mason. While this song does somewhat expose Mason's singing, it shows it to be the somewhat tired, yet buoyant and confident voice of youth that makes many of the songs so excitingly familiar. The song is about his feelings to want to escape, to feel a sense of liberation that causes many young people to run away and meander away alone. The references to his upbringing in a closed community are obvious: "Bars across my window, For a mild safety, Is this really where, Where I want to be?".
Oxygen is without a doubt, the standout track on the album. It is an anthem for the youth, representing the messages of the song very accurately. Released as a single, it only made #23 on the UK Charts, but many people find it their favorite Willy Mason song, and may, in fact, be the only song by him they have heard. It is a very pretty song, and Mason's singing is a highlight. There is no percussion, there is not extensive editing; just Mason's voice in slight harmony, and a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. The lyrics themselves are simple and yet very powerful, examining the problems of modern Western (in particular, American) society and offers, if somewhat idealistic, visions of a better world. He questions the new America with a stinging ardor: "Do you remember the forgotten America? Justice, equality, freedom to every race?
Just need to get past all the lies and hypocrisy". And yet, as before, he offers a visionary hope which is refreshing: "We can be stronger than bombs, If you're singing along and you know that you really believe. We can be richer than industry, As long as we know that there's things that we don't really need." I love this track, and I have listened to it more than almost any other song. It is timeless and beautiful, emotive and yet fun. It is a stunning song, there is no doubt.
21st Century Boy is the final song on the track. It is an unsettling, yet poignantly pretty final track, which tells the story of the decline of a young boy, who instead turns to the guitar as an outlet for his emotions. Perhaps it is somewhat a self-reflection, but I don't think to any real extent. Despite this track being somewhat depressing, it also follows the usual Mason-path of converting misery and despondency into a somewhat positive and idealistic, solution, in this case the utilization of music by the youth as a method for extending their sometimes introvert emotions. I find it not quite as 'finished' as I would like it to be. It's perhaps a bit jagged, which is perhaps necessary to preserve the importance and sense of despair of the song, embodied in the lyrics. However, for a final track, I would want something with a bit more continuity. The song leaves you somewhat unsatisfied, but overall it is undoubtedly a beautiful track.
However, despite my apparently ace-review of this album, I know Willy Mason can do better. Some of his other songs, which don't appear on this album, are, in ways, better, and I think that an unplugged album would be far better. As it is, the album doesn't do him justice. That is not a put-down of his brothers drumming ability. I purely have found Willy Mason to be most effective and most rhythmic when its just him and a guitar. Some of this album is not fully formed and somewhat immature and jagged, as I find parts of the first half to be. However, in Oxygen we can see a really great artist forming. I am not trying to over-hype Willy Mason. He is a great singer/songwriter, and he will become more popular than he his now; critics agree on this point. However, I think the Dylan references are immature, for now. Willy Mason has said that he will not be a sell-out, and I believe him. His songs may not be trendy, but they certainly are important, and they convey meaning which Mason lives for. As he says, "Well, if I stop having anything to say, I'll stop writing songs. I won't have a record and then I'll be on my own again. And I'll start over." You don't have to be a folk fan to love this record, I for one find much Country and Blues artists too inaccessible, perhaps due to my somewhat limited experience (or lack thereof) in terms of musicality. This isn't really party music, but it is reflective and empowering. I do think you should at least have a listen to Hard Hand to Hold, or Oxygen and, from these, you should fall in love with Mason.
As a side note, this is my first review on this site, or even, at all, to think about it. So please don't be too harsh on your cynicism and bounteous in your praise. However, I would find it interesting to know if this format of review is too long/badly structured etc. for this site, as there are some other albums I'd like to review. And no, my real name isn't Masper, its Jasper but that was sadly taken. :(