If anything, I am a girl who loves her some troubadours. From Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to M. Ward and Bright Eyes, I love a great storyteller. I have always had a soft spot for a song that spun a great yarn, even better if the singer had that rough, world-weary voice to tell it in. Willy Mason more or less fits the bill: the singer-songwriter with folk tendencies and that rough and tumble voice. So why is it that I have so much trouble getting into his music?
Mason’s second album, If the Ocean Gets Rough, is by no means a bad album; it’s a perfectly competent one. However unlike albums like Post-War by M. Ward or Springsteen’s Nebraska, no one song on this one grabbed me emotionally or really pricked my ears. Mason’s songs sound pretty and his voice is wonderfully wise beyond its years, but the lyrics lack a gravity that catch my attention.
Take the album opener, “Gotta Keep Walking.” The song begins nicely enough, with a soft roll of a snare drum and Mason wisely keeps the song from being just another folk tune by introducing a string section and a few strums of an electric guitar. Musically, “Gotta Keep Walking” is quite good but the lyrics feel tired and cliché: “I’ll sing a song, won’t take long/ shut my eyes and I’m back where I belong.” Maybe with a bong? Meet up with King Kong? I’m no songwriter, but the rhyme scheme seems a little forced here.
In “The World That I Wanted” Mason fares a bit better here lyrically. The song reads more like a story and a narrative than just poetry: “he’s the kind of guy that was always afraid of affection.” Of course, some of the best folk songs out there are narratives and Mason tells a compelling one about a confused son. However, while Mason’s lyrics are much stronger here, the music itself leaves something to be desired. Mason rambles his lyrics and there is little to keep my interest as a listener. After a while, the repeated lines “your father got all that he wanted” lost my interest. It wasn’t until I read the lyrics in the booklet, that I found the song more compelling.
Mason’s voice is probably his best asset. He is quite young (just 22) and his voice express an age wise beyond his years. At times his voice recalls Eric Clapton’s. Interestingly in “We Can Be Strong,” Mason not only evokes Clapton vocally but the guitar riff and drum beat seem to be lifted directly from “Layla,” not the furious Derek and the Dominos “Layla” but the more delicate version Clapton performed for MTV Unplugged. In fact, when I first heard “We Can Be Strong” I thought that it might be a Clapton cover. Whether this was intentional or not, the song can’t help but remind listeners of that Dominoes classic. This ends up being a detriment to the song as I couldn’t help but think about how I’d rather be listening to “Layla.”
Perhaps Mason’s greatest fault as an artist is how easily his music recalls other, better songs. “Save Myself” reminded me of a Ben Lee song, only better and less redundant. “I Can’t Sleep” is more or less M. Ward’s “Post-War” as sung by The Beta Band. “Simple Town” is a like a Bright Eyes throwaway after listening to Nebraska on repeat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with showing your influences, yet time after time I Mason’s songs wore out their welcome, and soon enough I was caught up in thinking about how awesome it would be if Springsteen and Oberst got together to write some songs.
Willy Mason has all the tools to become a really great songwriter. He’s still young and if he fine-tuned his writing skills enough, he could join the ranks of the previously mentioned world-class troubadours. If the Ocean Gets Rough is not a bad album, it’s just a rather dull one. While his influences may have their OK Computers, this is merely A Rush of Blood to the Head. One album is a spectacular example of technology and innovation in music while the other, though very good, seems to just coast along, being good without being all that ambitious.