In the tradition of croaking white-boy singer-songwriters from Dylan to Neil Young to Springsteen, this guy really can’t sing. His voice warbles and strains at higher notes and rests more comfortably at a flat drone down low.
On occasion he sounds like someone making a song up on the spot, cramming in too many syllables and searching unsuccessfully for a rhyme. And none of that really matters, because Where the Humans Eat announces the arrival of a great young talent.
With his overwrought voice, Willy Mason sounds more like an old street corner drunk than a nineteen year-old kid from Martha’s Vineyard. He seems to associate himself naturally with the outsiders and the homeless, the old worn-down troubadours, and in that sense his material is old-fashioned, with roots tracing back to Jimmie Rodgers, Robert Johnson, and Woody Guthrie. (He also clearly finds the role of the troubled, brilliant kid romantic; but then, so does everyone at his age.)
Where the Humans Eat belongs to a darker, more hardscrabble time in this country; full of shacks and ghost stories and travel by train. His influences are all over the place: the drowsy vocal opening to “Still a Fly” seems very Serge Gainsbourg, or Leonard Cohen; there’s a junkyard-beat creeper and moaner that would fit right in on Tom Waits’ Bone Machine. “So Long” is a bright, jaunty song that the Waterboys might have recorded. “It’s hard to lie down when you don’t trust the ground,” he sings on “Hard to Hold,” it sounds as if he stole it straight out of an old blues.
Mason is like a great street performer, sloppy, raw, and intimate; the natural heir to R.L. Burnside as much as Bob Dylan. Though it’s accessible, his debut album may never become a commercial dynamo – it’s a little to stark to make for pleasant, easy listening.
I don’t believe Mason is even thinking about how to make a great album yet; he just caught a break and all the best songs he’s written went into a pile, so in that sense it’s not a masterpiece, but it is a rarity and a good uncomplicated debut. Oh yeah, and he’s now touring with Radiohead, a nice little British band, so if he can keep himself centered enough to keep recording, the next few years should be good ones for Willy Mason.