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Steve Mason - About the Light Music Album Reviews

The infamous Beta Band frontman could have lingered in the shadow of his cult-figure fandom; instead, on his fourth solo album, he sings directly about the long process of growing up.

Following the Beta Band’s unceremonious end in the mid-2000s, lead singer Steve Mason seemed destined to exist as a cult figure; like many shadowy eccentrics, his outré musical achievements had become intertwined with a history of mental-health struggles. But since releasing his 2010 solo debut, Boys Outside, Mason has upended the stereotype with increasing emotional clarity and political bluntness, suggesting a sincere desire to connect where his former band confounded. In the middle of writing his 2016 release, Meet the Humans, Mason relocated from his isolated outpost in the Scotland woods of Fife to Brighton. He’s since found a partner and become a dad. Back then, Mason quipped his next record would be his “Brighton Album,” reflecting his newfound stability. With About the Light, he keeps that promise, delivering the sort of ebullient late-1990s Britpop record that his former band famously avoided.

Recorded with the Smiths and Blur producer Stephen Street, About the Light forsakes the genre-blurring experimentation and mad-scientist tinkering that was a cornerstone of the Beta Band and has somewhat lingered in Mason’s increasingly accessible solo releases. Instead, Mason delivers his signature folkie-Floyd musings with the creative input of his touring band, who keep the songs tight, confining them to the southern-soul terrain of the Stones at their most spiritual and the Primal Scream songs that followed the lead. It’s a warm, welcoming sound, emphasizing how Mason’s songwriting ethos hasn’t really changed since he first strummed “Dry the Rain” over two decades ago, ultimately transforming that casual acoustic stroll into a ticker-tape parade.

Where such tunes were once the Beta Band’s springboards into a vast sonic universe, they are an end on About the Light, with nearly every song becoming a waiting game for the moment when the horns and gospel-style backing singers come charging in. Even songs that seem destined for the outer limits find their way back to earth. The romantic reverie “Rocket,” for instance, begins as a minimalist, melodica-spiked dub skitter, but you know it’s only a matter of time before its four-chord progression balloons into a colossus. As the song explodes into guitar-solo fireworks, you get a glimpse of an alternate universe where the Beta Band kept their shit together and became perennial summer-festival headliners .

About the Light isn’t wholly fixated on domestic bliss. “America Is Your Boyfriend” opens the record with a seething indictment of the devastating Grenfell Tower fire of 2017, envisioning the death of capitalism as a New Orleans funeral march. And with the dub-side-of-the-moon drift of “Fox on the Rooftop,” Mason blurs the line between dreamlike serenity and nightmarish anxiety. But on the whole, this is the breeziest, cheekiest record of Mason’s career, at times exceedingly so. While the call-and-response motion of “Walking Away From Love” stakes the common ground between the juke joint and the church, mid-tempo soul-pop trifles like “Stars Around My Heart” and “Spanish Brigade” threaten to steer into the MOR cul-de-sac.

As a portrait of happiness, About the Light strikes its deepest chords when Mason acknowledges the long road he took to find it. During the title track, he dutifully refers to the campfire-funk template of “Dry the Rain,” only this time the climax it reaches is more emotional than musical. “Found a piece of bad luck lying by the side of the road,” Mason sings. “I had a chance to put it in my pocket/But I’m wiser, now I’m getting old.” They’re telling words from a guy who, 20 years ago, famously deflated the hype surrounding the most anticipated album of his career by deeming it “fucking awful.” (He is admittedly still unlearning the habit of self-sabotage, judging by the recent fallout from a mean tweet about British pop star Sophie Ellis Bextor.) It’s a reminder that bliss isn’t some final promised land, but a work in progress. And in sobering moments like these, About the Light delineates the big difference between simply making happy music and making music about happiness.

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