Photo by Warwick Baker
The sorrowful, the sad, the recurrent themes of country songs and blues, the ideas of death and desolation, betrayal and birthrights, the horrors of the past, the inevitable pains of the future. The gothic ideals of what is termed Americana, the romanticism of the world gone wrong, the common evils, the unraveling of the human in love or unloved. We know these places and sing songs which explore these moments and feelings because this dramatizes connection and it is connection that we most desire, the need to feel. This is the world portrayed in Marlon Williams’ excellent self-titled debut (available on Dead Oceans, out now). Songs that evoke the traditions of blues and country, songs that characterize love and loss, the beauty in the pain and the longing.
“It’s a simple language, it gives you so much room to…I guess it’s why I felt like I could make such a stylistically diverse album, because I believe in the simple, universal understanding of the rules,” notes Marlon Williams.
The rules: a good song, is a good song. Marlon Williams is the vessel of these songs. He paces himself, he allows space and room to flesh out a feeling, he is conscious of form and structure and phrasing, allowing each sentence to land and settle. “My little blond haired blue eyed boy. One day you’ll grow up and be distressed. One day you’ll grow up and reject everything I’ve set out for you” (from the song “Dark Child”). The ambiguities, the struggles all filling in a picture, completely at the behest of the listener, an idea more than a definition, a suggestion more than a proclamation. The spirits of these songs are never bound to one ideal, they are open to interpretation, the sources of the heartbreaks; the reasons are not explicit, there is resolution, more as result of circumstance than finality, more a place of landing than solace. But within inhabiting these souls, is it difficult to come out of them untouched, unchanged?
“This will sound like a bad thing, but I don’t think it is, it’s like muscle memory, but an emotional muscle memory…you get quite comfortable with the subject matter and applying that level of intensity, it really just starts to happen…”
And boy, when it happens. Williams is embodiment of the song, the whole: song, performance, and visual, each trait informed and magnified by the other. Live, he is a brilliant performer, displaying a present-ness of the moment, swept in and moved yet still in control, still able to conduct. The videos are stirring, cinematic, yet still allowing mystery to the song, the video is more figurative than explicative, the song is given a continuity than can be revisited in a new light, the songs the soundtrack to all of this, a frame from which the picture can constantly be arranged.
“The more freedom you can give yourself…you can give a song as many lives as possible, it’s not something that you consciously do…You can find as many different angles and be as economic with the songs as you can and be able to stand back and look at it from different angles…It’s important to be gentle with people’s psyches and egos in that way, you’ve gotta allow them breathing room, otherwise you’re just telling them how it is, that’s like the job of hip hop, that’s a different kind of art.”
Wholeness, maybe a constant theme I am alluding to here. Marlon Williams’ album captures that wholeness from the sort franticness of “Hello Ms. Lonesome,” to the implied terror of “Dark Child,” to the classicism of “Strange Things” to haunting beauty of “When I Was A Young Girl; the entire album is an experience and transformation, from a gunfight to the stillness of a room.
“It’s always hard, I don’t know if anyone can ever say, even when they say they do, that this is the end of a…that this is the album (in its complete stage), I wrote and recorded the last song last (Everybody’s Got Something to Say), like within the last evening of my time in the studio and it was important to me that that the album was finished, I knew that was going to be the last song, and it was important to me that the album finish that way. I wanted it to start big and get smaller and smaller as the album progressed.”
Do yourself a favor and give this your time, it can and does work in pieces, it doesn’t lose value, but I also implore that you first take it in as a whole work and take that journey. We are in a time of the temporary, of sensation and temporality, let us absorb this, savor it, only in and of that moment.