Music

Marlon Williams Points to Where Country Music Can Evolve on 'Make Way for Love'

Photo: Steve Gullick (Dead Oceans)

Playing through heartbreak, the young New Zealander makes bold new sounds in modern country music on his second release.

Make Way for Love
Marlon Williams

Dead Oceans

16 Feb 2018

Marlon Williams' second album, Make Way for Love, is a decidedly more somber affair than his warmly received, self-titled debut. On that record, the young New Zealander tried a number of honky-tonk and other old-school country personas on for size and found most fit just fine. Here, on what he has described as a breakup record following the end of his long relationship with fellow promising New Zealand musical artist Hannah Harding, Williams eschews masks and instead bares his heart and soul in a collection of 13 strong original songs.

Make Way for Love showcases a brash openness as Williams willingly exposes himself without apology or self-consciousness, and it makes for one of this early year's surprising and satisfying country records. Williams is a careful study of not only country music tropes, but a range of classic American pop styles and this record announces his arrival as a country songwriter to watch."I didn't make a plan to break your heart," he sings at one point, "But it was the sweetest thing I've ever done." There's probably a couple hundred wanna-be's in denim and cowboy hats hanging around outside Tootsies in Nashville who'd trade their pickup truck to be able to write a line like that.

On first hearing Williams' distinctive voice, comparisons to Roy Orbison and Chris Isaac are inevitable. In his effortless croon, one hears Orbison's melancholy vibrato but also other elements of great singers past and present. There's a bit of Marty Robbins in Williams' singing, and when his croon turns to keening, one can even hear elements of the sublime, passionate wail of trans chanteuse ANOHNI. The Isaac comparison is made more apt considering that both have filmed videos for singles that feature frolicking on a beach. But the parallel ends pretty quickly there. Where the buff Isaac cavorts in the sand with a naked supermodel, viewers of "What's Chasing You" find Williams goofing in his white boxers and black socks while other beachgoers ignore the pale dancing scarecrow. Williams might be all the cooler for that.

His songs adventurously flirt with country and broader pop traditions, ultimately creating a unique identity, even as their reference points often surprise the listener. "Party Boy", with its danceable guitar and drum foundation could be a classic Roy Orbison dismissal of a romantic rival, though it's hard to imagine that gentle soul drowning his nemesis. Williams, though, takes evil glee in the thought. "Can I Call You" starts off like a slow-motion version of Nirvana's already languid classic "Come As You Are' and builds ominously as its tale of a spurned lover threatens to cross the border into stalking. "Learn to love your solitude", his better self advises, only to be ignored: "I just don't know what that means."

The emotional turmoil spills into "Love Is a Terrible Thing", a heart-rending torch song, sung with spare piano: "People tell me, 'Boy you dodged a bullet' / But if only it had hit me, then I'd know the peace it brings." It's the kind of song that Sinatra would have covered and made his own when he was at the top of his game. Meanwhile, "Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore", a duet sung with Harding after their breakup, is reminiscent of Tindersticks at their most melancholy and lovelorn.

Noah Georgeson, who has previously produced records by Joanna Newsome, Devendra Banhart, and Cate Le Bon, gets the most out of Williams and his backing band, the Yarra Benders. He creates a soundscape that is pristine and clean without sounding antiseptic, wrapping the songs in a surprisingly effective pop sheen. Make Way for Love passes through in only 39 minutes, its brevity amplifying its power. It's a record that seems ready-made for the vinyl resurgence, and if so it demonstrates a benefit that the trend has brought to young musicians, who no longer need to feel beholden to fill 70 minutes of space.

This album of heartbreak is also one of arrival. Marlon Williams positions himself, here, as one among a number of important young songwriters pointing towards where country music can grow into the 21st century.

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