The centerpiece of Willy Mason’s first album in nine years is the maudlin ode ‘Oh My Country’. It’s a morbid and introspective look at the state of the land he was born in and its current condition, featuring lyrics such as ‘oh my country, of blood and lust, of heart and pain, death and rust, of shining sea and golden plain, of poison piss and covered reign, of hope and pride and filament, of theft and sly embitterment.’ It’s fair to say, then, that the man who once released a song about how much he loves his cats, and pounded us with optimism in his biggest single ‘Oxygen’, has been as badly affected by the travails of his quiet decade as the rest of us. ‘Oh My Country’ leaves us in no doubt that Mason has not been enjoying what he’s witnessed, and wants to come here and tell us about it in the form of song.
Song titles like ‘Youth On A Spit’ and ‘You’d Like To Be Free’ suggest a similar worldview occupying our leading man. And one listen to ‘Gilded Lie’, the album’s saddest song, would suggest a man pushed so close to the edge by the political landscape that there might not be a way back for him. There are some fascinating lyrics on show in this one, as Mason seems to talk about witnessing people he cares for falling for the Trumpism and conspiracy theories that have been so prevalent in recent times – ‘oh mother, oh father/careful don’t drink the water/oh brother, oh sister/be careful what you believe/the things we’d do to each other/I’m worried to discover/I hear it/I fear it/I’m giving all to Liberty’. In terms of the story and lyrics, it is exactly the kind of thing you’d expect such a truth teller to be putting out after stepping away from music during one of the biggest periods of social upheaval in his lifetime.
But while the lyrical side of the album might seem to fit the expected Mason pathway, the music doesn’t. The darkness of the world is not necessarily represented in the jaunty, blues driven sound of the majority of the album. The man normally known from finger picking and ballads actually gets pretty close to being a full on rock and roller on Already Dead – and when it works it results in some of the best music he has released so far. Sonically, ‘Reservation’ is probably the most exciting and engaging song on offer – the almost growled chorus of ‘oh, it’s a reservation’ over a funky guitar line and some simple blues percussion. It is catchy as hell and a total earworm. Unfortunately, this change of tone doesn’t always work quite as well. Songs like ‘You’d Like To Be Free’, ‘One Of The Good Ones’, and, particularly, ‘Outwit The Devil’ come across as quite generic blues rock – you’d expect a little more from such a well renowned songwriter after such a long break.
And that is, in the end, the general feeling of Already Dead. Standout moments such as ‘Gilded Lie’, ‘Oh My Country’, and ‘Reservation’ should be recognised. And on the rare occasion when Mason slows it down on songs like ‘If There’s A Heart’ there is a lot to admire, too (although I don’t know why the volume on this one was turned down so far). But in those songs that sound generic, it feels too much like you are listening to a Beck or Eels tribute act for it to be anything other than okay. This is a good, enjoyable album with moments of true class and real intrigue – but it is not the empathically amazing comeback that fans might have hoped for.
Words by Fran Slater