SOMETIMES, ONE almost gets the impression that the music of New Brunswick singer/songwriter Brent Mason is just a bit too good for mass consumption. There seems to be no other explanation as to why the outstanding material that he has released during this decade has not brought him national fame.
Maybe Mason’s lyrics are a bit too clever and probing. Maybe there is too little ear-candy in a voice that can veer towards either a spoken word or a one-note wail too often for the tastes of some. As for the instrumental blend – what has now evolved to become a curious fusion of acoustic guitar rhythm lead, busy bass, screaming fiddle, and all-over-the-map percussion – it is admittedly more into the jam than the hook.
Then one wishes that they might be wrong, and that programmers and listeners alike would give Mason’s unique craft a chance. Such an optimist gets more ammunition than ever with Mason’s third album, Stony Plain. The quality is there with what is his most personal effort yet – itself quite a statement when applied to the work of an artist who has always used self-disclosure and personal imagery to give strength to the song. Musically, however, there is an added variety which could broaden Mason’s fan base.
There is a wistful feel of melancholy and a spiritual longing to most of Mason’s music, both lyrically and melodically. The bittersweet nature of his voice is the added touch.
A typical character inhabits the album-opening title track. As always, Mason packs a lot into his lines. Many East Coast musicians have told the tale of the lad who went west in search of fame and fortune only to end up with neither. Few make the character come so alive. “I hate it when the old times start looking like the new,” laments a man who is now stuck with the choices that he made. Typically, though, this son’s protagonist is a survivor, and his creed is “no excuses, no regrets.”
Some characters struggle more with their identity and their anchoring. In the vignette, Pieces of Time – one of the album’s many songs in which backing vocalist Sherri Chenard is used to really good effect – the melody is a simple skeleton for the tale of a person, “waiting all of my life for pieces of time.” This man ends up perplexed, admitting, “Sometimes I swear I’m somebody else lookin’ for someplace to hide.” The simple melody is an enhancement to the lyrical poignancy, as well, in the comparatively chilling Eye of Innocents.
Sometimes, Mason’s song subjects are intensely personal, such as the song for his son, All My Love. It is, perhaps, the most widely format-accessible piece Mason has ever delivered. As he sings, “to watch myself come alive, to watch you being born,” Mason delivers a piece that will ring especially true for any man who has seen his child being born, or any woman who has given birth. Cut from the same cloth is an old Deadhead’s elegy for Jerry Garcia entitled, Wait For the Dew.
In some other songs, matters addressed are more universal in scope. Examples are the angry young man in his ’30s’ diatribe on corporate and government greed, Snakes & Ladders, and the word association tale on a one-chord thrash, Brave New World, which reflects upon history becoming pop culture and vice versa.
For the first time, Mason has delivered a universally strong album. As always, that strength is reinforced by the undertone of spiritual quest in his characters and his storylines. One may quibble with the fact that the search-for-true-love song, Paradise, is more progression than melody, but Bob Weir forged a career using that device. Even a song like the unity of humanity credo, Broken Islands, though it uses more hackneyed imagery and literary devices than most of the album’s tracks, is still head and shoulders above the songwriting of many hitmakers.
In short, Brent Mason deserves to make it. In a more specific sense, he deserves to be heard, and the album Stony Plain affords the perfect opportunity.
Wilfred Langmaid is Anglican chaplain of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, and music critic for the Fredericton Gleaner.