Boys Outside was a strangely paradoxical record. Despite focussing on a period of deep despair – from the mental torment presented in The Letter (“The time’s here for me to write this letter – crush those bones in the back of your brain”) to the post-relationship trauma exhibited in Am I Just A Man (“Am I just a man in love? Or Am I just a man out of touch? I tried to go, I tried to last the distance”) – Richard X’s production helped produce a record that, overall, sounded roundly accessible: from quintessential electropop (for example Stress Position) to typical sounding The Beta Band (Lost And Found, All Come Down).
Nevertheless, Steve Mason is angry. With its title taken from a Buddhist term for an easily distracted brain, Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time presents Mason’s deep frustration with culture, politics and the general state of affairs.
Nothing illustrates this more than opener The Old Problem, comprising seaside samples and a spoken-word section from Canto XVII of Dante’s Inferno: “Sorrow gushed from their eyes and made their sad tears flow. While this way and that they flapped their hands for ease from the hot soil…and now from the burning snow.” Is this Mason’s vision of our current state? Is he perhaps casting himself as a modern day Dante, trying to enlighten us to our own hellish existence? It’s certainly evocative.
The Old Problem blends into Lie Awake, a paired-down track with Mason’s vocal at the heart while brushed drums, soft bass lines and slight strings linger beneath. Here, the lyrics are the focal point: “And you just can’t keep up, with all the money and the luck.” The lingering, slow tempo helps create something calming and meditative – a brief period to assess a world becoming faster, more demanding and arguably more unpredictable.
Following track Flyover ’98 brings one of 11 linking pieces produced by Mason at his Fife studio, with this one including joyful busking sounds of accordion with cars and a motorbike revving past, before linking into the captivating piano-driven A Lot Of Love, with Mason musing on whether modern life can bring love and happiness: “Is there love for me? I just don’t know. Is there love for me? How did I let it go?” The use of the linking piece is deeply effective here, suggesting how modern life is driving Mason’s deep introspection.
Indeed, the use of the linking pieces does bring another dimension to the album – as if we have two albums running concurrently. Or, to refer back to Dante, an outer ring depicting the world around us and the inner ring demonstrating Mason’s thoughts.
Goodbye Youth and proceeding track Never Be Alone illustrate this; the melancholic sounding guitar and tormented laughs and cries of Goodbye Youth then merge into grand string arrangements of Never Be Alone and lyrics mourning the loss of youthful optimism and the realisation that hierarchy can, ultimately, dictate one’s life: “Mostly now I see it too clear, in those words I wrote ‘I had no fear’… please don’t tell those that you love, it’s true that death comes from above”.
Another linking piece, Behind The Curtains, follows – an intense, hellish, inaccessible sounding piece that culminates with a line spoken by Fleance in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “The moon is down, I have not heard the clock”. Spoken before Macbeth does the deed, it represents a type of dramatic irony within the play – an eerie, lifeless silence preceding the tumult.
Here, Mason uses it as a metaphor to demonstrate the simmering tension before the nationwide riots in 2011, with More Money, More Fire – featuring MC Mystro and taking the album into pure hip-hop, with siren-like synth blearing in the background – presenting the riots as a period that led the country into a deep circle of hell, with police brutality, deep unfairness and money the prime causes. Touching upon the death of Mark Duggan right through to the rise in tuition fees, the “MPs [who] should be in the HMP”, Mystro and Mason suggest that the truth behind the riots has been forgotten.
From hip-hop, Towers Of Power takes the album into dance territory and, like Never Be Alone, again suggests how hierarchy and institutions hold a power over all – “The towers of power’s a power in my mind” – very Louis Althusser – before imagining the freedom gained from their disappearance. At just over a minute long, it’s a short yet highly memorable.
Come To Me is an ambiguous yet lovely album closer; it is optimistic and speaks of companionship, yet acts a warning for those continually looking for change and upheaval: “There is no point replacing, there is no point in chasing, there is no point defacing, there is no point erasing you”. It is a personal ending to an album that looks at the wider world, suggesting Mason has found solace and can now reflect on the past. Mason has been through his own hell and, fortunately, come through it.
Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Time is a rich and literate album, which inspires conversation and debate. The music, which is enjoyably varied, almost takes a backseat – it’s Mason’s lyrics that takes hold, and rightly so. Mason is speaking for a disenfranchised generation and this album will chime with many.