Stardom never seemed to fit too easily with The Beta Band. Despite an unlikely name-check in the film adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, and a creative heyday in the mid-’90s, they were ultimately too experimental to cash in on Britpop and not willing enough to play the game that record companies dictate. And so, after three albums, The Beta Band split in 2002.
Steve Mason, the band’s frontman, has had an equally stop-start solo career. He’s recorded some excellent records under names like King Biscuit Time and Black Affair, and even collaborated with pop maverick Richard X. Yet some well documented mental health problems and a seemingly creative self-destructive streak (this is, after all, the man who described the first Beta Band album as “a crock of shit” just before release and just weeks ago caused a stir with an ill-advised tweet about Sophie Ellis Bextor‘s knowledge of disco) means that his records have never quite gained the attention that they deserve.
It comes as something of a surprise then to discover that About The Light is Mason’s most accessible work to date. It’s an album full of big choruses and uplifting moments, a record that sometimes brings to mind the early moments of Elbow‘s career. The addition of veteran producer Stephen Street certainly seems to have brought out the best in Mason.
That’s not to say the unsettling edge that Mason has always brought to his music is completely absent. Underneath the stirring brass of America Is Your Boyfriend lies a simmering anger, a fury aimed at capitalism at its worst with the “tower on fire” of Grenfell being the most damning example. There’s also a skittery anxiety to Fox On The Rooftop, but overall, About The Light seems to be a record that captures Mason at his most content.
Stars Around My Heart has ‘crossover hit’ written all over it, with a big, gorgeous chorus and stomping brass (it also has a nagging refrain of “over the radio” which is always a good trick to receive more airplay) while there’s a frantic quality to Walking Away From Love which may shock those who only know Mason from his more reflective Beta Band days. While it would be difficult to describe About The Light as a full-on pop record, it’s certainly the closes that Mason’s come yet.
Lyrically, there are all sorts of signs that point towards this album being a product of Mason’s more contended mindset. Rocket starts off slowly, before slowly building up into a starburst of a song but it’s the line “you give me back the love I had” which holds the key to the album.
Some naysayers may complain that it’s all a bit too upbeat and polished, and it’s true that some tracks like Spanish Brigade and the nondescript closer of The End aren’t particularly memorable. Yet whether it be the sunny jangle of No Exit or the pop sensibilities of the likes of Stars Around Your Heart or Walking Away From Love, there’s enough here to demonstrate that this is Mason’s finest record of his solo career to date.