You get the feeling that Willy Mason came along a bit too early to be fully appreciated. If that meant avoiding the identikit acoustic troubadour tag that covers a host of today’s Paolo‘s, Morrison‘s, Johnson’s or those much-loathed Blunt beasts, then you get the feeling he and we should breathe a sigh of relief.
His world-weary debut Where The Humans Eat seemed to bear a lot more weight than his 19 year old bones could bear and became a word-of-mouth treat (his almost-hit Oxygen became a protest song of sorts) overlooked by those seeking polished performances, serving up some scratchy lo-fi blues with no hint of ego and a whole lot of humble. Here was one performer unafraid of rasping, swearing and generally living up to the idea of acoustic guitar = protest singer, even if his protests were more personal than global.
If The Ocean Gets Rough continues Willy’s worldview of underclass realism. These are well-travelled songs with dust behind their ears. Written on tour and recorded with his family in a small no frills studio only adds to the image of cottage industry ‘keeping it real’. His mum even steps up on backing vocal duties. There’s no major change here in either instrumentation (still acoustic) or song matter (quirky tales of small town/big themes). Fans of Bright Eyes, The Magic Numbers and M Wardshould pay attention.
Opener Gotta Keep Walking starts inauspiciously as a retort to last album opener Gotta Keep Movin’ and on this one track highlights what has changed in Mason-world. The rough edges and cheeky charms of his debut have been refined into more thoughtful arrangements, the sighs of instruments unwinding and intermingling around melodies and words, at first simplistic seeming, but taking on weight as they make their home in your head.
The World That I Wanted is a personal reflection of a son losing father that is affecting and honest in the swaying rhythm and mandolin-picking. The ghost of Elliott Smith stalks Mason on I Can’t Sleep with its woozy narcoleptic haze hovering over the blue-tinged Beatles-y chord progressions.
Save Myself’s quirky off-kilter rhythms listing of all the possibilities of world calamities such as �when the vultures copyright the word free’, being only redeemed by the arrival of a lover. With the strolling, graceful blues hymnal of When The River Moves On (with its gospel imagery and homespun choir) there is a sense of organic completeness to these songs.
Sometimes though that can be a downfall, as sparks get dulled and edges get lost. The only criticism is also If The Ocean Gets Rough’s progression from his debut album. The songs aren’t in a hurry to stray beyond mid-tempo and occasionally the production is stodgy as on The End Of The Race which plods through mud when it could be more lively.
Ultimately though it is a beautiful melancholic album, ruminating on storms in teacups through to the feeling of being becalmed (Simple Town) which in the sea of clones with guitars is a welcome life-raft..