CMU Artists Of The Year 2010 – #3: Steve Mason

In 2006, a year and a half after The Beta Band had come crashing to the ground, frontman Steve Mason released ‘Black Gold’, the debut album from his occasional solo project King Biscuit Time. Following on from a couple of well-received singles, the album was hailed as a as a welcome return and Mason’s solo career looked set to get off to a good start.

But then, on the eve of a national tour, Mason posted the message, “I’ve had enough. Over and out” on his MySpace page and disappeared. The tour was cancelled and King Biscuit Time came to an end. In the two weeks he remained out of contact, Mason admitted to the Guardian earlier this year, he’d been contemplating suicide and later asked his GP to have him sectioned.

When he returned to music the following year, it was as Black Affair, an 80s electro-influenced project that was notably darker and more stripped down than his earlier work. He released one album under this moniker before drifting out of view once again.

This could quite easily have been where Mason’s solo career ended. And as a big fan of both The Beta Band and all of Mason’s solo output, it always frustrated me that this was the way, it seemed, it was going to be. But, thankfully, last year something changed. Or two things. Firstly, he overcame the depression that had dogged him throughout his career. Secondly, he allowed someone else to produce his recordings; Richard X.

Recorded in 2009, the result of this was ‘Boys Outside’, easily one of this year’s best albums. It features Mason’s most personal lyrics to date, and is appropriately the first work he has released under his own name (though the album was originally conceived as the second Black Affair album). With the guidance of Richard X, he allowed himself to fully realise his pop tendencies that would previously have been subverted somehow, whether intentionally or involuntarily.

Everything about it feels like an exorcism of the past, and though the lyrics do not always come from the happiest of places, there is an overriding feeling of hope that is infectious. In fact, asked what his ambitions for the album were prior to its release, Mason told CMU: “My ambitions have never changed in twelve years. I want to be a huge success, without betraying my personal beliefs. In the future? Well, I will be a huge success. Finally! As long as I don’t go mental again!” Which somehow seems to sum up the content of the album perfectly.

The album release also saw Mason finally tour properly as a solo artist. Over the course of the year I’ve seen him play three times, on each occasion he’s been noticeably more confident being back on stage and has even allowed a few Beta Band and King Biscuit Time songs to creep into the set. In fact, a definitely highlight of the year was seeing him play ‘Dry The Rain’ at a packed show at XOYO in Shoreditch in October.

I’m loathe to call it a comeback, because, for me, Mason’s recorded output has always been of a high quality, whatever his mental state. But ‘Boys Outside’ is certainly the best work of his solo career, possibly even bettering his Beta Band days, and has finally pushed him closer towards the level of recognition he undoubtedly deserves.

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