[4 May 2006]
Precociousness and youth seem to be the words of the day among the reviews of Willy Mason’s confident debut, Where the Humans Eat. Part of it is that he’s got an old (old-sounding) voice for his age; more is that the words he’s singing are not the trite immaturities you’d expect from a 20-year-old. And sure, he doesn’t sound 19-at-the-time-of-recording. But I’d argue this is obviously a young man’s record, dually preoccupied with the ills of this messed-up world and how to carve his own place in it.
Mason’s songs hum and thrill with the kind of poetry that gets you labeled ‘the next Dylan’, but his music is more firmly planted within the folk-blues genre. There’s a little country creeping in at the edges of his songs, too, which brings to mind Johnny Cash; and he has just a little of Elliott Smith’s melancholy. It’s a formula that has netted him some impressive results: a deal with Connor Oberst’s Team Love label; a slot supporting Radiohead.
The songs themselves are melodious and understated, the kind of folk ballads that aren’t revelatory so much as comfortingly familiar. But for once the familiarity is not boring re-tread: Mason cloaks each essentially within-genre composition in a voice as unique as any of those cultural touchstones whose songwriting formulae he apes.
Since we’re talking about these songs, “Oxygen” deserves comment. The latest in a long line of protest songs, the album’s first single is, almost, not Willy Mason’s song: the circular, repetitive melody and simple chorus are those of a tired, tired man. The weariness in his voice doesn’t undermine the fight-the-system lyrics, but man does that Ritalin line get me every time. It’s a great song.
But again, “Oxygen”‘s the anomaly. Most of the songs on Where the Humans Eat are short, melodious, and simple, and the recording low-fi, with all the instruments existing somewhere half a room behind the speakers. Within this general outline, songs flow with a variety of moods: the abrupt “Letter #1” is Tom Waits more fully-felt, a dark kind of carnival; “All You Can Do” is perhaps the most likeable song on the album, with its chord-change chorus all saccharine-sweet, and steady, catchy beat; “Sold My Soul” and “Our Town” are a sort of forgotten third-grade folk song sing-a-long, turned out with a T.S. Eliot-like disgust at the everyday tragedies of the modern world.
What just keeps this album below the level of a new classic, ultimately, are small touches of amateurism; the things that say around the edges, ‘This is a first-time effort’. I’m thinking of the shouted emphatics behind “Gotta Keep Movin” or “Where the Humans Eat”; or the tenacity with which Mason sticks to the blues/folk thing in “Hard Hand to Hold”. If only he had just a little more cynicism, a little more weary observation, he could have made it another “Band On Every Corner”, the little pearl in this genre that waltzes away the Whitlams’ Eternal Nightcap: “I’m drowning in the city / With no Saviour in sight”.
In the end, Mason’s wide-eyed hope overpowers his drowned-man’s voice or the petty complaints of songwriting minutiae. Though not perfect, these confident, well-crafted songs herald the arrival of an artist whose work we will look back on and say, ‘That was an album’.