Willy Mason managed to impress a lot of people before his debut album, Where the Humans Eat, came out in 2004. His earnestness, his clear love of American folk music, and his warm melodies won him fans among other artists as well as among the general public. His sophomore album, If the Ocean Gets Rough, shows these same characteristics, but it also shows him at a point where his flaws can't be as easily brushed off, or blamed on his youth. Not that there are many mistakes here: Mason is an impressive songwriter, able to construct mature pieces that have a sense of familiarity but still sound new and unique. "We Can Be Strong" sets itself around a bluesy bass-and-piano romp, but it also incorporates elements of pop in its harmonies and acoustic guitars, with Mason singing about trying to find himself as an adult. It's clearly a topic he's familiar with, and so it comes across as honest and realistic, and makes the track a standout. The same can be said about "When the River Moves On." He's clearly influenced by old-timey music but he doesn't feel he has to adhere completely to it, which allows him room to modernize it in a way that makes it very much his own, and so when he sings "My friends have all gone traveling/And there's panic on TV" over a Deep South-inspired blues line, the contemporary and the past fuse together cleanly and skillfully. It's when Mason tries to reach far beyond his own experiences that things start to seem a bit forced, like the clichéd "The World I Wanted" or "When the Leaves Have Fallen." But even these slight blemishes don't disfigure the overall beauty of If the Ocean Gets Rough, mostly thanks to Mason's compelling voice. With the lazy weariness of Tom Waits and the inflection of John Lennon, Mason makes every line he sings something worth listening to, something worth remembering. And when this is coupled with songs that can already stand strongly on their own, it makes for a pretty commanding album.
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AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown