Although he has released several albums over the past ten years under various pseudonyms, Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time is only the second “real” solo album from Steve Mason. It could easily be split into two or three albums and finds the former Beta Band leader skipping between genres with great relish. He flirts with country, gospel, dub and rap over Monkey Minds‘ 58 minutes, but he’s always lead back to the safety of mature indie-folk, of which he has an authoritative grasp.
An increasingly conflicted Mason is contained by a stately backdrop of pianos and guitars, although said backdrop gets steadily more fissured as Mason’s calm Scottish timbre becomes more impassioned. He is as much consumed by ideas of nostalgia and acceptance of the present as he is by Britain’s recent political failings, and Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time is loosely separated along the lines of those twin themes. The prelude, however, is quite dream-like. A spoken-word passage gives ‘Lie Awake’ an instantly sinister air about it, but Mason dispels such creepy tones with aching synths, his own whispered tones and what sounds like a baby’s mobile. It lulls and soothes, shooing any macabre overtones away with its sweetness.
Fifth track ‘The Last of the Heroes’ rather amusingly marks Mason’s descent into the depths of memory with the competing screams of two Formula 1 cars – belonging to Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – and the excitable Brazilian commentator following their latest duel. Set to dubby horns and a shuffling drum-beat, it’s a neat little conceit that inherently yearns for better times – I mean, who’d want Sebastian Vettel’s polite, cherubic dominance of the sport today when they could have the thrilling philosophical battles that defined Prost and Senna’s heyday 20-odd years ago?
There’s an intense weariness that permeates the album’s mid-section, with ‘Seen It All Before’ giving into cynicism (“Here I go again on the floor / It’s like a film, ’cause I’ve seen it all before”) as ‘Lonely’ crumbles under the weight of sorrow. “Not one day goes past without regret / The lights, the nights, the tears, the fights / The things you don’t forget” is one line in particular that mocks the belief that time heals all wounds; they only grow deeper in the months and years spent picking at them.
The wonderful ‘Never Be Alone’ injects some fighting optimism into proceedings before falling into ‘Behind the Curtains’, a grotesque distortion of ‘Rule, Britannia’ that signals the commencement of the album’s politically-charged final act. Mason cedes the stage to MC Mystro on ‘More Money, More Fire’ who charts how the 2011 London riots quickly transformed from an earnest protest against police brutality into a hellish consumerist free-for-all that briefly crippled the nation.
For all its lyrical heft and intense rumination though, it is only on the closing tracks that Monkey Minds consistently comes to life. Mason further extends upon the political theme across ‘Fire!’, ‘Operation Mason’ and ‘Fight Them Back’, dredging up the tragedy and scandal of Dr David Kelly in this, the ten-year anniversary of the Iraq War, while also imploring listeners to “get up and fight them back / With a fist, a boot and a baseball bat”. Such fiery sentiment is needed to wrestle the album from the grips of nostalgia; but overall, despite overtures to all corners of music, the quite brilliantly titled Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time rarely parleys Mason’s lyrical depth into a transcendental listening experience.