Given the perilous condition of the Western world, it's surprising so few modern-era musicians reflect this in their craft. Perhaps the general ennui that's set in since the global economy went into meltdown in 2008 has had something to do with it; after all, who wants to hear hope-bereft protest songs when the world around you actually feels like it's bereft of hope?
Thankfully, Steve Mason has other ideas. The former Beta Band man's third solo effort, Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time, not only addresses key societal issues but also confronts them, challenging the dominant political ideologies that, he believes, left us in such a mess in the first place. In other words, he's actually got something to say.
Despite the hard-hitting choice of subject matter, Monkey Minds is pleasingly appealing. In between the looping clips of political unrest, Mason has created a collection of songs that nods its head to both the melody-hewn compositions and the dub-heavy experimentalism that have steered the Scotsman's career to date. The results tend to be impressive, with the shimmering gospel swell of "Lonely" and the equally compelling "Oh My Lord" representing a maturing in Mason's songwriting nous.
At 20 tracks long, it gets a little over-familiar. The meandering "Operation Mason" and "Never Be Alone" would have been best abandoned in the cutting room. But what remains is a buxom sonic treasure trove that serves up the brass-parping beatsmanship of "Fire!" alongside percussion-stroking ballad "Seen It All Before" and the savage hip-hop of "More Money, More Fire"—a furious MC Mystro-led tirade about 2011's London riots.
As protest albums go, Monkey Minds is probably not a movement-inspiring rabble-rouser. But in an age of anodyne opinions, it's reassuring to know today's musicians can still take to their soap box and make such a persuasive stand.
First published here for Under the Radar