When the New York-born, folk- and blues-inspired songwriter Willy Mason began to turn heads in 2004, the acclaim he received was mainly for the confident, spine-tingling mission statement that was “Oxygen.” Although his ramshackle, hastily recorded debut album, Where the Humans Eat, was a strong set, it was the album’s penultimate track that impressed most with its focused, countercultural message and masterfully simple arrangement of double-tracked vocal and guitar. Similarly, with Carry On -- Mason’s third album -- it’s the pared down, live-in-the-studio title track which makes an impact here. Dreamt up during a five-year period at his childhood home on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, and recorded with Dan Carey in Streatham, South London, Carry On follows the comparatively slick, full-band project that was 2007’s If the Ocean Gets Rough. Carey -- known for his work with Hot Chip and Kylie Minogue -- was unaware of Mason’s previous material at the point of being enlisted, and that fact is evident when we hear programmed drums and increased use of electric guitar across much of the album. Although Mason’s brother Sam still features here on acoustic drums, his contributions are restrained and tempered, fitting in with the overall drift of the record. While Ocean found cohesion through the use of a rich and accomplished array of players, here Carey achieves a logical flow by marrying digital effects with a line-up that never swells beyond a quartet. On the album-opener “What Is This,” Mason sounds as stoically assured as ever, if a little world-weary, on a song that appears to search for sense in a post-recession world. Throughout much of the material here -- from the character piece “Pickup Truck” to the inspiring parting shot “If It’s the End” -- he retains the integrity of figures such as Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. It’s a characteristically serious approach, with Mason only cracking a smile during the upbeat and entertaining “I Got Gold.” Nevertheless, Carry On might be the most personal Willy Mason record to date and finds him unafraid to use traditional blues motifs -- narrow roads, one-way streets, and fugitives -- to fully express himself as a songwriter. Maybe the impact of the title track is largely due to the way that its simple vocal/guitar/mellotron arrangement provides respite from the ambitious, occasionally distracting, programmed rhythms which litter the majority of the material here. However, “Carry On” is also as lyrically and structurally sound as “Oxygen,” with Mason bookending a verse about himself with imagery of a moth ending its own short life, and a verse which finds an old man at the bar taking “one last drink.” With this mature and striking song of acceptance even at the age of 28, Mason already appears to be reflecting on the peaks and troughs of his career when we hear “Chasing dreams that end in pain/I’ve chased the sun, I’ve chased the rain.” It’s this unwavering frankness that makes Carry On such a compelling addition to his canon.
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AllMusic Review by James Wilkinson