Boys Outside, the first album of new material from Steve Mason in two years, is the album he has been threatening to make ever since his first group The Beta Band’s early EPs. While throughout their turbulent career his band regularly conjured up moments of irresistible pop brilliance – with songs like ‘Squares’, ‘Assessment’ or ‘Dry The Rain’, for instance – their albums occasionally varied in quality. It was as if the band, and Mason in particular, had too many ideas and, bearing in mind the strained relationships that seemed to define the group, not enough consistent focus to see them through.
Mason’s collaboration with Richard X on Boys Outside however has resulted in ten exquisitely realised compositions – based largely around songs played on Mason’s acoustic guitar, the duo add touches of electronica and R’n’B that give this record a consistency and clarity that Mason has previously lacked, while sacrificing none of his creativity. It helps that Mason has shaken off the depression that dogged him during his days with The Beta Band and caused him to go AWOL just before the release of his (also very good) album as King Biscuit Time.
The result is a typically bittersweet album – one that consistently tempers reflections on past despair with new hope but does so in surprising ways. ‘Understand My Heart’ is all about the struggles of a perhaps doomed relationship but it positively shimmers in, draped as it is in synth touches that make it difficult to resist – it’s one of the most immediate songs he’s created in years. ‘Am I Just A Man’ treads similar ground – “And there’s a darkness that persists through all of this/And though I try to keep the light on it exists” – but manages to retain an ambiguous soulfulness that perhaps comes from a sense of distance from the past.
There’s a darkness that lingers in most of these tracks, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in depression – songs like the brooding ‘Yesterday’ or the glitchy, atmospheric ‘Stress Position’ are vessels for Mason’s anger, which is itself filtered through a new clarity. At times, when he’s combining electronica, strings, R’n’B, and soul, Boys Outisde is reminiscent of Bjork or Radiohead – artists who craft unique pop songs in surprising, often introspective ways.
The thin line that is walked between melancholy and optimism by Mason throughout Boys Outside is most apparent in the glorious ‘All Come Down’, which is soaked in his harmonies and builds hope out of disappointment. First single ‘Lost and Found’ is similarly reflective, concerned as it is with suicide – it flirts with oblivion but you could almost be forgiven for missing this on your first few listens, as its pop immediacy harks back to The Beta Band’s early work.
Fittingly, Boys Outside concludes with ‘Hound On My Heel’ – with its lyrics that focus on themes of running or being chased, Mason is wise enough not to claim all-out redemption at the end of an album that hints at light beginning to find its way into a long dark place. Boys Outside feels like a pause, a reflection on a particularly long journey, but for all its introspection, it’s Mason’s songs rather than his story that suggest a wealth of new, future possibilities.