The painterly and textural artwork of Brent Mason’s new album High Water Mark looks like it could be the cover of a modal jazz re-release or the opening image to the latest cello suites by Yo-Yo Ma. However, it is inarguably a grassroots work of Maritime folk. The elegant and abstract wash of deep blues and greens sets the emotional queue for the album and the colour and feel of the music itself. It is a laid back and mellowed effort that genre hops with a gentle effortlessness, subtly bridging east coast fiddle music, country, bluegrass, rock, blues and, of course, folk sensibilities. Moving between upbeat head-shakers, ballads and slow-movers with ease, the tracks flow in and out between themselves almost seamlessly. It is clearly the thoughtful and intentional work of a musician who has matured in their efforts. With ten albums behind Brent Mason, one would hope to find nothing less.
In some moments, when the record shifts pace into its more upbeat incarnations, Mason channels nuances of The Tragically Hip. In others, he launches into well-crafted and perfectly placed solos, not out of odds with the impeccable fretwork of Mark Knopfler, like in “Get It While You Can” and the opening track “Where Your Love Lives”. The vocals are at once subdued and strained, reminiscent both of electric-era Dylan and Mason’s east coast contemporary, Joel Plaskett.
Limited in vocal range, the slowly enunciated syllables and spoken-word dimensions of Mason’s singing place his songs in a wide canon of folk storytelling. The work is not transcendent but, importantly, it does not aim to be. Mason’s observations are soft and quotidian; the musicianship, accomplished but controlled. It is an album that fits well and comfortably in the space it has created for itself.
However, where High Water Mark fails itself most is in its lyrical content. Gentle and observant at their best and asymmetric and corny at their worst, Mason’s words feel worn out. “The Other Side of Blue” speaks sweetly and plainly of the struggle to find ease and happiness, while “Count the Rings” skips awkwardly with clunky rhymes and folksy generalities.
More discomfiting, however, are the moments when the lyrics are not just clumsy, but perhaps misguided. “Snowdrift”, a song about a First Nations sex worker, comes across politically out of date and has a strong feeling of watching from the outside. It follows the simplified and tokenistic notions of indigenous culture frequently found in Westernized portrayal, referring to its protagonist as “the daughter of a wolf” and asking “will the medicine wheel heal”.
While the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women are important to all Canadians and while Mason’s intent is clearly sincere, his efforts here feel misdirected, speaking from a place that is not his to hold.
Similarly, the role of the male gaze is inescapable in “Midlife Waitress”, a song about a middle-aged man falling in love with a server. What may be initial irony seems to get lost somewhere along the way. In what could have been a critique of the trope of falling in love with a “waitress” we end up with another embodiment of the trope itself.
These guffaws sit oddly with contemporary understandings and point perhaps to a song-writing culture that has not entirely reimagined itself with current politics. High Water Mark is a direct, competent, earnest and well-oiled musical effort that also inadvertently highlights the importance of exploring and unpacking our language and the discourse surrounding it.