Steve Mason has always come off as sort of an enigmatic fellow, lacking the mental frailties while possessing the acute fondness for exploration of his ‘60s counterpart, Syd Barrett. Perhaps Mason was the Barrett of his former unit, the Beta Band, a group of kitchen sink constructivists who released three heralded EPs followed by three albums. The first the band hated, the second was underrated, and the third mostly forgettable. If one can trace a lazy backward line from something like the Black Hole-sampling “It’s Not Too Beautiful” to Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine”, the Mason/Barrett line is also not unreasonable to follow.
In addition to his time with the Beta Band, Mason also kept his fingers in ostensibly solo electronic endeavors like King Biscuit Time and Black Affair. Barrett’s post-Pink Floyd output was still weird, but stripped down and intimate. And maybe that’s what Boys Outside, Steve Mason’s first solo album proper, is like. It’s still weird, but sort of like a weird hug, like if that naked wizard who got tased at Coachella two years ago gave you a hug. You know, after he calmed down and maybe put some clothes on.
The press release accompanying Boys Outside mentions songwriting on acoustic guitar and a stripped-back approach toward the music’s completion. It must be understood that those are comparative descriptions based on the artist’s past work, because while the opening “Understand My Heart” isn’t overflowing with bells and whistles, it’s not a folk number, either. For Mason, stripped down may indeed mean giving the songs a chance to stand on their own with a minimum of oddball chirps and tweets. Well, except for the Beta Band-esque “Yesterday”, which employs what sounds like an electronic woodpecker.
“The Letter” is outright romantic, though take comfort that Mason hasn’t gone completely soft. “Crushed all the bones in the back of your brain” isn’t a line one often associates with what becomes of the brokenhearted, but the strings, the piano, and indeed the repeated line “Something sad has happened here” give the game away.
The song most fulfilling the “stripped down” promise of the press release might be the title track, which opens with Mason’s voice and a gentle acoustic guitar line. As with most of the music, it adds little elements as the song rolls on, filling in space without becoming intrusive. “All Come Down”, the album’s lead single, is so spare it’s almost translucent, glimmering in the light of Mason’s uncanny knack for haunting melody, organs, and echoes, and the voice you maybe fell in love with the first time you heard the Beta Band.
Closing the album is “Hound on My Heel”, which sounds as though it’s being played on the porch of a cabin across a very placid lake, each new sound causing its own ripple as it reaches the opposite shore. Mason’s music, while undeniably inviting, is also difficult to hold on to, an apparition haunting your speakers.
The comparison to Syd Barrett is easy. Like his psychedelic forebear, Mason’s music is evocative enough of his former glories to draw those fans in, but compelling enough on its own to keep them there. He was wise to put his own name on the collection, even if that name means consumers have to be absolutely sure they’ve got the right Steve Mason before they fork over their dough.