Ex-Beta Band man returns, mixing post-Brexit politics with a joyful sense of escapism to create his most vivid and vibrant musical statement to date
Steve Mason has always endeavoured to make big, imposing musical statements. Whether as leader of The Beta Band in the late ’90s, under his King Biscuit Time guise, or on more recent solo albums like About The Light and Meet The Humans, he’s shown a special ability to create music that channels the panoramic while aiming to inspire, uplift and cajole. Latest album Brothers & Sisters sees him build on these long established musical interests but, importantly, also add new elements to the mix to deliver a compelling listen. It comes out of the blocks impressively quickly, with each track building on the former to create a formidable initial run.
Opening track Mars Man is something of a towering opus, built around drawn out, klaxon-type synths. It features Mason singing of “celestial excitement” and “human elation” and is both an epic and mystical beginning that sets the tone for the rest of the album. I’m On My Way is similarly progressive and outward-looking. “Here I am, hold my soul, I’m never going to sell it for rock ’n’ roll” he sings, a reminder of his principled stance on concepts like equality and liberty and his desire to elevate and improve the lives of those who take time to listen to him.
No More features contributions from Pakistani singer Javed Bashir and santoor player Kaviraj Singh, who add an extra dimension to Mason’s rousing call to arms. It has a real tour de force feel to it, a candidate to rival the likes of The Beta Band’s Dry The Rain as the best of his career. Mason has explained how the songs is inspired by his opposition to imperialism and all its negative, destructive consequences. “To me, this record is a massive ‘fuck you’ to Brexit,” he elaborated, ahead of the album’s release. “And a giant ‘fuck you’ to anyone that is terrified of immigration because there is nothing that immigration has brought to this country that isn’t to be applauded.” Sitting on a fence he, rather emphatically, isn’t (something which finds its way into the music). Bashir reappears later on the electro-driven Brixton Fish Fry, another moment that sees Mason subtly challenge what some listeners may expect from him, a commendable broadening of his sound.
All Over Again and The People Say offer two further uplifting shots of positivity, both recalling classic Primal Scream. They might not be as radical as Screamadelica but certainly share common ground and have a similar synthesis of styles. The former features some glorious gospel backing vocals from Jayando Cole, Keshia Smith, Connie McCall & Adrian Blake, with lines like “you were there to pull me through when all around was shaky” hitting home powerfully. The alternating piano motifs and baggy, shuffling percussion of the latter might give off a sense of the familiar but the chorus soars, taking the track to new places.
If there’s any criticism to be had it might be around some of the easier lyrical choices he makes on certain tracks. On Travelling Hard he sings a repeated mantra of “no one said it was ever going to be easy” and the title track sees him urge “brothers and sisters, pump up the volume!”. They may initially feel a little soft lyrically but, given the album’s broader context, could easily also be seen as Mason trying to strike a populist, uniting tone, a rebuttal to any negativity and conflict (musically they both certainly achieve this).
The choice to close the album with another, edited airing of No More suggests the track is key to Mason’s thinking and is something of which he’s rightly proud. Brothers & Sisters might have a strong political element to it but it’s clear that it’s equally informed by a joyful sense of escapism and an unshakeable belief in the value of humanity. In terms of musical statements it’s hard not to see it as his most vivid and vibrant to date.