In trying to validate their own careers and produce interesting copy, music writers hardly ever label things "just okay," preferring instead to radically over-praise or demolish whatever comes across their desk. Thus, you probably won't hear a lot about Willy Mason's latest album, which exhibits flashes of both brilliance and tedium.
Massachusetts-based Mason was only 19 when he released his infectious, lo-fi debut, Where the Humans Eat, in 2004 on Conor Oberst's Team Love label. The album was full of smart, catchy lyrics like, "You're just a kid, you shouldn't read Dostoyevsky at your age," set to mid-tempo acoustic finger-picking that recalled acts like Crooked Fingers and Damien Jurado. Thom Yorke was impressed enough that he asked Mason to open a string of dates for Radiohead in 2006.
If the Ocean Gets Rough is Mason's first album for Astral-werks, and it's a much "bigger" album than Humans. There are full arrangements with thumping pianos, backing vocals, string arrangements, and a folk-rock finish that just shouts "big label debut."
It sounds like Mason has been digging through old Americana and blues albums lately, and wearing these influences a bit too much on his sleeve, like a college student who recently discovered Muddy Waters and then decided he was a "bluesman." Corny lyrics like "Oh baby, I have a heavy heart... I'm on a rolling train downtown" are saved only by Mason's gravelly, authoritative voice.
But it's not accurate to say the new album is worthless. For one thing, it's incredibly easy to listen to, with lots of snappy melodies and hum-able choruses. The call-and-response verses of "Save Myself" are as good as anything off of the latest Shins CD, and remind listeners how awesome Where the Humans Eat was.
In the end, If the Ocean Gets Rough is simply a so-so album by a much-better-than-average young artist, and as such, will likely fall into a critical black hole. The best thing that could come out of this would be Mason returning to his bedroom with a four-track and getting back to his youthful roots. It shouldn't be too hard, since it was just, oh, three years ago.