The Albums of 2013 (#2): Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time (Double Six)
Across a year of austerity budgets, fracking controversies and seemingly endless state surveillance revelations, the anger and frustration that structures Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time has rarely been far from thoughts or headlines. With his sails filled by a zeitgeist wind of change, Steve Mason’s follow-up to 2010's Boys Outside saw the ex-Beta Band frontman bare and sharpen his iconoclastic edge, calling out complacency and corruption and encouraging others to do the same – which, in a popular music landscape largely allergic to explicit political engagement, ensured he spent 2013 proudly standing out from the crowd.
Whether turning festival stages into politician-bashing soapboxes or using promotional interviews to expound his thesis of social change via open dialogue, Mason tackled head-on a subject all too often viewed askance or bathed in metaphor – in itself, enough to mark Monkey Minds… as one of the year’s key releases. That all this heartfelt polemic came attached to some of the most rousing, refined and inspired music of his career – integrating influences from hip-hop to gospel to dub – didn’t hurt either.
"The intention of this record was to start a conversation about where we are and what we’re facing" – Steve Mason
Calling to congratulate Mason on his high placing in our albums of the year poll, he takes the opportunity to recapitulate the record’s impetus and message, whilst reflecting on its reception. When we previously spoke in March, ahead of the album’s release, Mason had noted that political concept albums are “fraught with problems,” remarking that “many have gone down that route before and failed." He must therefore be pleased, we suggest, at the nimble way in which Monkey Minds… has bucked the trend? “Yeah, absolutely,” he replies, speaking from his tour bus en route to his final live dates of the year. “For me personally, making a record after Boys Outside was quite intimidating because I thought that was one of the best records I’d ever made. And once I realised what I wanted to do – that is, make a political concept album – that became a worry in itself, because people have massive preconceptions about any kind of music and politics connection. So for it to be so well received by people who like what I do, from radio stations like 6 Music and independent record shops and obviously magazines like The Skinny, has been really heart-warming to be honest. And it’s meant that people have been asking me about my politics, so it’s involved a huge amount of dialogue – which was really the intention of the record anyway: to start a conversation about where we are and what we’re facing.”
While the album’s overtly political elements are first to sear themselves in the listener’s consciousness, there’s more to Monkey Minds… than dissent and agitation, with the visceral, ire-infused likes of Fire (introduced live as “about being invited to Tony Blair’s house and strapping him to a chair and setting fire to him”) and Fight Them Back (a charged call for action against social oppression) only constituting a slither of its full range of emotional registers. Amidst the fomentation lies a softer impulse: optimism, conveyed through moments like From Hate We Hope’s spoken word interlude (“I remember looking at myself and thinking how amazing it is to be human, you know?”) and closer Come To Me’s tentative hopefulness, which ends the album with the words 'it’ll be alright.'
Such contrasts lend Monkey Minds... its three-dimensionality; it's not a flat protest placard, but a profoundly human morass of introspection and conflicting passions. “I think the whole thing, from it coming out till now, feels very positive,” continues Mason on the subject of the album’s reception. “People have understood it’s not some empty call for a pie in the sky revolution or something like that. They seem to understand that it’s genuine.”
To Mason’s mind, conviction is key. “I always make sure I have 100% belief in everything I put out,” he says, identifying the Beta Band’s maligned debut the sole exception. “That’s really, really important of an artist like me, because people expect it. Once artists like me – and I don’t mean just me, there are other artists doing similar things – but once we stop making music, I dread to think what will be left. All you’re going to be left with is people coming out of music colleges and stage schools and all that, and it’s not really art any more, it’s all made by committee. I find most of what I hear now very derivative and full of fake emotion – it just doesn’t feel real to me in any way. So I believe that it’s incredibly important to put every single drop of energy and belief into every record that I put out.” With Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time as evidence, we’re inclined to agree.