These days, it seems like everyone wants to be one of two things: a rock star or a rock savior. You know the divide—Cold War Kids vs. Bright Eyes, Test Icicles vs. Arcade Fire. Their own blog-fueled fire consumes the former, while the second resign themselves to stints on All Songs Considered and Leno. There’s something to be said for kicking ass and taking names, or earnestly believing you can save the world. Sometimes, though, you have to just sit back, relax, and listen to someone who has no delusions about their ability to Save Rock and Roll. These are the artists that drown out traffic and soundtrack boutiques. These are the albums that languish on iPods, forgotten until a forgiving Auto-Fill reminds you of how you did like that song, or this lyric, or the funny harmonica at the end. I’m betting no girl will throw jellybeans or panties at Willy Mason, and that SNL won’t be calling him anytime soon. And those are good things, because it sounds like Mason wouldn’t know what to do with flying candy and Darrell Hammond. If the Ocean Gets Rough is a solid set of songs from a still-developing young artist. It won’t change your life, but it will get you through your day.
If the Ocean Gets Rough is, at heart, a traveling album. Mason crafts his songs around growing out of the familiar comforts of home and into a world ready to swallow him up. It’s understandable creative fodder for a young artist, and these are trusted themes that have served other singer-songwriters well in the past (alt-folk peers like M. Ward and David Dondero seem to lurk in the background here). Mason does the topic well, and songs like “Gotta Keep Walking” and “Save Myself” are sturdy interpretations of the traveling man genre, complete with jangling guitars and brushed snare drums. Like most of the songs on this album, they sound as if they were written by schooled professionals who’ve done this all before and know what points to hit (walking, distance, absence, you get the idea). If this gets a bit repetitive, it’s also reassuring; there’s nothing here that will offend your ears, and Mason knows his way around crafting a good melody. Unfortunately, he also has a liberal hand with chorus repetitions. Phrases like “save myself” and “we can be strong” are trite to begin with, and don’t get any deeper the 6th and 7th time you hear them.
Mason’s first album, Where the Humans Eat, earned him comparisons to Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne. That’s enough to make any young singer-songwriter uneasy, but Mason-as-singer sounds relaxed and untroubled on his Astralwerks debut. So relaxed, in fact, that you might wonder where the Dylan comparisons come from. Mason’s voice is distinctive (a smooth baritone that sounds much older than his 23 years), but by and large the studied lyrics and slick production do him a disservice. The rough edges that made his first album endearing have been rubbed off and replaced with a handsome but generic finish. The lo-fi bedroom ambiance of the earlier album is all but absent, popping up only when Mason is left alone with his guitar and his melodies. Album closer “When the Leaves Have Fallen” is a sweet song, starting off simply with a tapping foot and plucked guitar. It swells with piano and cymbals into a restrained anthem that speaks of love and sacrifice. These themes are as weighty as anything that Mason takes on earlier, but here they are given the space to expand and develop into a more fully-realized image. At last, Mason shows instead of tells, and the result is far and away the best song on the album. This is the one you will remember, the last track on the mix CD you’ll make for that one girl you dated, or the one guy you wanted to date. And that person will know you have awesome taste, and will ask you more about this Willy Mason character. And you will say evasively, “Yeah, he’s pretty good”, which is all I have to say about it, anyway.