After the Beta Band broke up in 2004, Steve Mason went through what anyone would describe as a rough patch. The band’s demise left him and his fellow band mates in debt, and Mason went to work in construction to make a living. A long-term relationship ended. Mason, who had always suffered from depression, began to find life unlivable. After the release of Black Gold, an electronic-reggae album, in 2006, Mason disappeared for several weeks, only after posting a cryptic, maybe-suicide note on the King Biscuit Time website. Leaving even close friends in the dark about his whereabouts, Mason tried unsuccessfully get himself committed to a mental hospital. Instead, he received medication, therapy and, after a long time, was able to start writing again. Boys Outside, his first solo album, came out of that period of extreme darkness and eventual recovery. Shadowy, chilled, glossily electro-pop, yet with an undercurrent of exhausted emotional turmoil, it inhabits a strange place between confessional songwriting and IDM-ish detachment.
The arrangements, credited to Mason and producer Richard X, are super-clean pop, with percolating machine drums and luminous electronic keyboards. You can catch a bit of the Beta Band’s shambling, slacked- out beats in early cut “Understand My Heart,” a bit of its folky syncopation in pretty “Lost and Found.” Yet for the most part, these songs are polished to a high gloss, with Mason’s worn, somewhat tentative voice as the main source of roughness and vulnerability. This becomes especially striking in “I Let Her In,” which is, lyrically, perhaps, the most devastating of these songs. In it, Mason dwells on a serious love gone belly-up, going so far, even, as to address his unborn children. Yet, while the song’s lyrical content is bleak, it is couched in a quietly lush arrangement of guitars and glowing brass-like synthesizers. It’s like viewing a flesh wound in a clinical setting – the cut is messy in itself, but surrounded by antiseptically clean white surfaces. Later, “Stress Position” revisits the same themes (and possibly the same relationship), with Mason’s disembodied murmur enumerating various short-fallings and disappointments. However, it weaves through a musical setting that is as lavish as commercial dance music, a perky little electronic beat pacing his ruined ruminations.
This disconnect is disconcerting at times, but it also works beautifully for a surprising final third of the album. Here, in songs like “All Come Down” and “Boys Outside,” the combination of extremely clear, extremely pop production with rather harrowing themes seems to expand the scope of the work. It turns what are obviously personal songs into something larger, more inclusive and more general than the experience that brought them forth. There’s a lift to the swelling vocals. The arching choral climaxes make you feel a resolution to the suffering here – and not just Mason’s personal suffering, either. He’s turned a hard patch into something transcendental. However brief, however ephemeral, there’s a sense of spiritual overcoming that encompasses not just his own history, but the experiences that listeners bring to these sad songs, as well.