When The Beta Band broke up in 2004, Steve Mason moved quickly to follow his penchant for electronic music, recording first as King Biscuit Time, then as Black Affair. Both of those ventures explored territory similar to that frequented by more popular contemporaries Björk and Thom Yorke, but neither King Biscuit’s Black Gold nor Black Affair’s Pleasure Pressure Point really seemed to showcase the talent Mason exhibited while working with The Beta Band.
One issue with the King Biscuit and Black Affair releases was their lack of song structure. The meandering electronic excursions bounced along on Peter Hook-inspired basslines without ever really advancing the plot. The results made for good New Order send-ups, but never matched the potential most fans knew Mason was capable of delivering. His new release, Boys Outside, captures that missing notion of conventional songwriting and brings with it the delicate harmonies and lofty choruses fans of his earlier work have been missing since 2004. “Understand My Heart” opens with Mason slowly crooning, “Sometimes when I’m alone at night/ I surround myself with what I think’s right/ Then I find I think until it’s light.” It is wonderful indeed to hear Mason resume the Morrissey affectations and heart-on-sleeve confessions. On “Am I Just a Man,” he opts for more self-referential angst, asking “Am I just a man in love?/ Or am I a boy out of touch, because I tried to last the distance?”
Musically, these songs are built around Mason’s deceptively simple guitar playing and straightforward lyrics, and in this context, each song works as a well-considered lesson in restraint. But the extraordinary blend of sprawling melodies and quiet yet intricate verses leads to swelling choruses that expand too far to serve as a mere exercise in minimalism. The ghostly confession found on “Lost and Found” — “I lost my way when I jumped in the river/ The girl repeats as she makes me shiver/ The life she gave was mine you see/ The trees, the blood, the knives, the leaves” — hints at a world full of tales untold. In it, Mason strings together his most poetic offering: “She pulls me down and my legs get stiffer/ The cold, the sun, the dark, the river/ The shiver, the mud, the black forever.” When the chorus arrives, it’s almost as if Mason knows he’s singing the highlight of the set.
Boys Outside shows no wrinkles; there are no obvious missteps or wrong turns. In fact, the album only comes up wanting in one place: it’s too short. Fans of Mason — especially those who miss the Beta Band days — will love every song, and newer converts will discover an artist whose talent for crafting exceptional songs is unparalleled. It’s fitting that Mason reserved his first official solo album for his best work since The Beta Band. The results prove well worth the wait.