Boys Outside turns The Beta Band’s spectral, pastoral jams into electronic soul.
Andy Fyfe 2010-04-27
Bob Dylan once said he didn’t understand how anyone could enjoy his 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. How, he reasoned, could anyone listen to the pain of his marriage being torn apart and be entertained? Catharsis, of course, is often the very essence of great art, but with a pinch of salt you can see his point. How, then, are we supposed to listen to former Beta Band singer Steve Mason’s solo album, where every note drips with his own depression, suicidal yearning and loss?
After the 80s electro dabblings of Black Affair and King Biscuit Time’s dub-wise folk, this is Mason’s first album under his own name, and it’s likely no coincidence that he’s never sounded as close to his old band. Produced with Sugarbabes collaborator Richard X, Boys Outside turns The Beta Band’s spectral, pastoral jams into electronic soul, sharing both the group’s relish for surprising musical detail and Mason’s unique ability to make despairing love an attractive lifestyle choice.
Like a hangdog cartoon character, Mason has always walked around with a black cloud above his head, except here there is little comic value to be had. Written in the wake of a 2006 breakdown that saw him post the message “I’ve had enough. Over and out” on MySpace then disappear for two weeks of self-harm and weighing up his options for ending it all (he claims he drove around Fife looking for trees to crash into at speed), Boys Outside isn’t exactly part of his therapy, but it is certainly a product of it. Understand My Heart, Am I Just a Man, I Let Her In and others deal with the end of a long-term relationship and the darkness that regularly descends on Mason (in the case of single Lost & Found it refers directly to suicide), and if free download All Come Down gives a sense that he is currently at least happy with being unhappy, Hound On My Heel’s minimal electro pulse closes the album acknowledging everything could go tits up at any moment.
Boys Outside sometimes soars with joyous detail – the choral wash in the background of Understand My Heart, for instance, the like of which hasn’t been spotted since 10cc’s I’m Not In Love – and sometimes slightly misfires – the therapy babble of Stress Position. But this is the most balanced album of Mason’s career, or certainly the least precipitous. There is still a yawning void beneath him, but for once it doesn’t sound as if he’s about to fall into it, and you can’t help but share his relief.