Album: Willy Mason

Where the Humans Eat, VIRGIN
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The Independent Culture

The youthful protégé of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, the 20-year-old Willy Mason is one of the brightest new stars in the folk-rock firmament, his slight shoulders already carrying a substantial weight of expectation. But on the evidence of this debut album, they're strong enough to take the load, and Mason's smart enough not to be worried by fans' fanciful claims.

The youthful protégé of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, the 20-year-old Willy Mason is one of the brightest new stars in the folk-rock firmament, his slight shoulders already carrying a substantial weight of expectation. But on the evidence of this debut album, they're strong enough to take the load, and Mason's smart enough not to be worried by fans' fanciful claims.

Like Oberst, he's already acquired the "new Dylan" sobriquet that has damned many a promising talent before him. It's easy to see why, with songs such as "All You Can Do", "Hard Hand to Hold" and "Still a Fly" displaying a rare combination of intelligence and demotic phrasing, while Mason's offhand vocal manner imparts a sly, sardonic edge to "Our Town", his tale of getting his collar felt in New York for no good reason. "You're not quite uptight enough for our town," the cop tells this suburban hick from Martha's Vineyard, and it's hard not to think of the young Dylan who wrote "Hard Times In New York Town" four decades earlier.

Where the Humans Eat is populated by outsiders, kids with hyperactive imaginations and loose-enders mired in despair, all looking for a way out, desperate to find a new direction. "Hopelessness is in the alley, dragging his feet/ He wasn't born that way, but life has taught him defeat," runs the opening gambit of "All You Can Do", while the lonely artist in "21st Century Boy" is "just wanderin', got no place to go", but is ultimately redeemed by his art and music: "He takes all of his sadness and makes it sound so pretty."

Mason arguably does something similar in these songs, which lope along in various folk-blues gaits, mostly driven by the North Mississippi-style drum shuffles of his 16-year-old brother Sam. On tracks such as "Gotta Keep Movin'" and "Fear No Pain", the result is akin to a folksy Kings of Leon; elsewhere, the addition of cello and vibes to the title-track, and a seedy backdrop of noises to "Letter #1" draws them closer to Tom Waits territory. The underage underdog anthem "Oxygen" is much simpler and more immediate, its double-tracked vocal implying a certitude the other songs lack, as Mason makes his pitch for Spokesman of a Generation: "I wanna speak louder than Ritalin for all the children that think they've got a disease/ I wanna be cooler than TV for all the kids that are wondering what they're going to be".

It's the most direct expression of Mason's empathy for a generation that doesn't even realise it's disenfranchised, to whom he offers sharp soundbites ("It's a hard hand to hold that is looking to control") and friendlier, more ironic advice: "Still, you're just a kid/ You shouldn't read Dostoevsky at your age/ 'Cos that and nicotine/ Will make you pale and lean." Ah, but isn't that the main aim of teen culture?

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