Kenny Mason Is the Sound of Change

Kenny Mason’s “Firestarter,” from his 2020 album ‘Angelic Hoodrat,’ is the perfect song for my emotional moment.
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I don’t do well with change. I live for my little routines. Nothing gives me joy quite like knowing what I’m doing, and what time I’m doing it at. But now, the world is upturned. It’s eerie and unsettled. I hear the world sighing every day; she groans with the weight of unnecessary death. Everything suddenly feels worthless and unearned. We are currently enrapt in a vile stillness, and yet my life is still managing to unfold.

For this reason, I feel immense guilt every day, but as my therapist tells me, guilt is a useless emotion. And as most of my inner circle will say to me, I should be happy. In two weeks, I’m starting a new life—moving into a rowhome in Philadelphia—with my girlfriend. I’ve packed up my hundreds of books and copies of The New Yorker. I’ve parted with money for deposits and movers. It’s all happening.

Still, I lie awake at night anxious as all hell. When I approach the fringes of what could be a peaceful sleep, I start breathing heavily, and my whole body shakes. I feel waves of sickness come over me that turn into mornings spent throwing up on the bathroom wall. For all the excitement of my move and my life becoming all the more “adult,” I am terrified. I cannot sleep. My body rejects it. So, instead, I put on Kenny Mason’s Angelic Hoodrat, and try to lose myself in the insulated, jaunty keys that open the first song, “Firestarter.”

“Firestarter” is the perfect song for my emotional moment. Just look at this opening line: “Sorry mama, I cannot show weakness.” When I told my mom I was moving in with my girlfriend, she cried real tears of sorrow. She told me this wasn’t the life she wanted for me, but this is the life she’s going to work to accept. We spent an hour on the phone, just bawling. In the weeks leading up to my big reveal, I was certain she would choose to cut ties with me officially. I was prepared to live a life without an immediate family. I was fine with it, too. It’s the way Kenny drones these bars that comfort me, how I think of that conversation with my mother, and the strength I had to summon to make it clear I was living my life for myself, perhaps for the first time.

Kenny continues: “My thoughts on defense / Paranoia make me talk slow.” There’s a gentle patter to Kenny’s delivery, how he just states every emotion as fact. Kenny Mason sounds like a voice stifled in the throat at times, the way he occupies all this space but cannot exist in our tangible world. He sounds like the way a voice breaks in two at the behest of tears. Kenny Mason sounds like me, and you, and everyone else embroiled in a battle with themselves and the cards they’ve been dealt.

I have a funny relationship with cards. My mother is a fortune teller. She learned while sunning as a teen along the Baltic sea, back when she lived in the USSR. I used to have her read my fortune on a deck of weathered playing cards because I couldn’t bear my present. Since meeting my girlfriend, I haven’t asked for a reading. I’m too scared of bad news—there’s too much to lose.

Suddenly, there’s a house, and there are questions about the future. Will there be a ring? Kids? How will we afford it all? When? People are coming to me with excited questions, and I am giving concise answers, and as “Firestarter” crescendos while I try to fall asleep, I think of timelines and analyze every decision I’ve made leading up to this moment.

In two weeks, I start a new life in a new place with someone dependable, stable, perhaps even the love of my life. It’s the most enriching thing I’ve ever done, but there’s too much to lose. I don’t think people realize the risk until they’re face to face with it. Until you mail that check and get those keys and look around and it’s just you and this person, and the room is filled with love until perhaps it isn’t. The guy who lived in the house before me moved in with his then-girlfriend. He lives alone now. Fuck.

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So, there’s a lot of change in my life, and the way “Firestarter” moves—Yoh and I are always talking about movement—there’s a looming sense of dread that overtakes the gorgeous piano line. With all of its jarring flourishes, “Firestarter” sounds like change. Around the 40-second mark, these blaring, distorted, and muddy guitar tones crawl through my speaker and claw at my psyche. I’m lying in my bed, but I’m also spinning ‘round and ‘round in this endless void of muddled notes.

Kenny Mason is taking me somewhere else—somewhere I’ve been before. He’s taking me into the pit of my anxiety, putting my face to the fire, and showing me how, miraculously, I’m not going to get burned. When his voice reverberates across my bedroom walls, the vocal ricochet grounds me. For some reason, I know he and I are going to make it. There’s so much power in the way Kenny calls himself a “Motherfucking firestarter.” We don’t get burned. This change will not burn me. We start the fire; we make the choices. His growls are my anchor. “No matter how hard this shit’ll get / I’m hitting it harder / My power unlimited.” Kenny Mason and I are infinite.

In some ways, “Firestarter,” feels like a hug. You know the type, the kind of shoulder-crushing hug that stops time. As the song plays out into a woozy series of guitar riffs, you can imagine someone special holding you and their touch seeping past your pores and into your bone marrow. I think of my dad crushing me with his attempts at love, but I also think of my mother telling me he’s “struggling every day” with my being gay. I think of the way Kenny Mason says “Motherfucking…” and how it sounds like he’s about to spit out a lifetime’s worth of pain. I think of fairness and what is and isn’t, how things and people change without asking us first if we’d be okay with their morphing.

Earlier on “Firestarter,” Kenny says, “Words connect like apostrophes when I drop ‘em on top of these tempos.” Words are all I have to get me through this change. Words are all I have to get me through these times, and I hate the phrase “these times,” too. Everything feels obtuse. Precision has been lost. All I want is to know what’s coming, but, if my girlfriend were here, she’d remind me I do know. We are moving into a beautiful house in a wonderful part of a city I’ve grown to love. We are starting a new life, and there’s so much to lose, but there’s even more to gain. She’d tell me I’m bigger than all my fears. If she reads this, and I know she will, I hope she knows I love her as much as I love writing and music. So, with all my world-weary heart.

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