It’s 1969. A sun is setting on a summer of love. War, children, it’s just a shot away. A generation fightin’ in the streets, a generation fightin’ in a foreign land. Good Mornin’ Vietnam! A knock on the door at 10050 Cielo Drive. Brian, Rocky, Jack ‘n’ Judy, burn out, RIP. The Fab Four storm the roof and wave goodnight as Elvis laments the boyz in the ‘hood. Midnight Cowboy smears a sleazy, degenerate X onto Oscar whilst Woodstock dreamers awake to Altamont nightmares. Yes, comrades it may say 2011 on the sleeve, but Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter’s fourth record fans those hot, dark fires of 1969. The Summer of Love has grown cold, this is the end, my beautiful friend, the end. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky and there’s thunder rumblin’ down the broken highway…
Sykes’ and ex-Whiskeytown wonder Phil Wandscher have been stealthily amassing their cult army for a decade and to the relief of their disciples, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. No hook ups with RedOne or Taylor Swift here. Opening your new opus with an eight-and-a-half minute Led Zep astral freak-out basically translates as “We ain’t comin’ down, find your own way up.” As introductions go, “Hushed by Devotion” is akin to being slipped a mickey and led into the dunes by Jim Morrison and a mute Cherokee with his arse hanging out. Not your typical Sunday afternoon in the park.
Marble Son is definitely a body possessed by two spirits. The first’s a heartbreakin’ sweetheart who leads you through an enchanted forest full of sparkle and magic with angelic lullabies, sunshine and cute cartoon bunnies. Well, almost. The other is a brutish demon who rolls with bad folk, swinging furious guitars. Sometimes both speak at once. It is the aural equivalent of Venkman and Spengler crossing streams in Ghostbusters. Chaos ensues. Here, Sykes acts as some kind of white witch compère to the bedlam that surrounds her. Her haunting voice — part Sandy Denny “creepy English folk”, part Grace Slick “creepy American cosmic rock” — drifts through the ether like a husky apparition. She’ll glide in stage left, conjure some whispery, pretty, hexy divinity then dissipate, before the heavy mob — colossal drums, voodoo chile riffs — swarms in and trashes the joint.
Luckily for the neighbours, it’s the gentler, wistful spirit that dominates. “Come to Mary” is the closest thing to Wandscher’s halcyon days sparring alongside Ryan Adams. A hit of the Byrds’ slow-fried country laced with moonshine, pot, and the setting sun. “Come to Mary / She don’t mind” invites Sykes’ with mischievous promise. Elsewhere, the lullaby duet “Marble Son” recalls the calmer side of the Beatles’ White Album. A cradle-swayin’ melody, a sweep of weepy, glittery violins. Like its siblings, it’s a lost soul pining for things beyond its reach, broken in time, hidden by history. “Oh marble son, why can’t I love you more? / I wish I’d found you beautiful before.” It’s the echo of Son House’s eternal regret confessed in his “Death Letter”: “You know I didn’t know I loved her ’til they damn laid her down / Lord have mercy on my wicked soul.”
Even at its most soothing, though, there remains something unnerving about Marble Son, as a troubled malady lingers. The tender, acoustic “Be It Me, Or Be It None” weaves like Sykes’ trip slippin’ in and out of consciousness, channelling “Dear Prudence” through heavy meds. “For the silent one who stands / I will disappear,” she sighs. Whilst the groovy instrumental “Weight of Cancer” starts off as a “Hey buddy”, stoned bongo party around the campfire, it swiftly rises into something darker, filthier. A changeling. As is often in the Land of the Sweet Hereafter, by its breathless comedown, you’ll feel you’ve been freshly jinxed by Juju hounds.
After so much haziness, “Pleasuring The Divine” feels like waking up in the passenger seat beside a psychiatric patient tearing down Hell’s Highway at 100 mph with no brakes and no headlights. Somewhat unnerving. The Sabbath-ish feral razor wire riff that punctuates the verses unleashes a can of musical whup-ass and Sykes’ spilling voodoo hoodoo about kissing “each other’s wives” doesn’t help my general thoughts of “HELP! MUMMY!” either.
It’s definitely Americana Noir (“Americanoir”) in the southern gothic tradition. A record packed tight n’ loose with forlorn imagery, death and rebirth, hollow ground, “Shadows for your flowers” and “Souls growing tired of their skin”. As beguiling and captivating as the siren’s call, listen too closely and you’ll hear the sound of your own skin crawling out the door. When Sykes commands, “Listen to the children sing,” I’m not sensing chubby-faced cherubic choirs as much as Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now reaching for that sweet lil’ red riding hood. That ain’t no child, honey.
The strongest tracks, though, come toward the end, when you’ve passed the initiation and haven’t wet the bed. The dramatic, spectral “Birds of Passerine” is the sound of crying ghosts yearning to be freed. “You’re free but caught in the myre,” mourns Sykes, “Oh we cry for the space you occupy!” It’s proper ye olde English doomy folk music — y’know, death n’ scarecrows, pestilence n’ potatoes. “The world won’t let you go,” decrees Sykes, somewhat unfairly. “Your Own Kind” swiftly follows, marrying the gallows glamour of Mazzy Star with a foot-on-the-amp, facemeltin’ axe riff Slash would heartily high-five. “We are too young to illuminate the dark,” croaks Sykes cryptically. Finally, the lush, cinematic closer “Wooden Roses” signs off like Buckley’s “Dream Brother” wading into the abyss, “Fell into the sea / Suspended / Broken hearted.” A thing of terrible beauty.
Marble Son is a tough cookie and won’t cheapen itself for your affection which, naturally, makes it even more lovable. You’ll go home with bruises, mind. It’s the child of some Faustian pact between Karen Dalton and Jimmy Page born at some secret southern crossroad. The counterculture furies of ’69 reborn, eternally “hiding from the daylight.” You’ll be drawn to the glow of their bluesy-country embers, but eventually you’ll find yourself miles from home, dancin’ into the flames, out of your head, covered in warpaint and doing a witchdance. It’s true, throughout its hour-long spell, I had the unmistakeable feeling I was being groomed for some devious southern death cult and what’s worse, I liked it. Come, join us.