Marlon Williams – Make Way For Love (Dead Oceans)

It’s been a reasonable three years since Marlon Williams’ self-titled debut, but the Lyttelton songwriter’s follow-up shows a startling growth, expansion, and simply put – improvement. Make Way For Love is a gorgeous exploration of separation and heartbreak that sees Williams’ besting his past work lyrically, musically, vocally and emotionally.

Of course, there have been changes in those three years that may have contributed to this impressive leap. There is a spectre hanging over this collection of songs that is unavoidable in any discussion of the album – Williams’ separation from partner and fellow musical star Aldous Harding in December of last year.

The term “breakup album” is often considered diminutive and rightfully so, but there’s no denying that such situations have often brought out the best in artists – think Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or even Radiohead’s recent A Moon Shaped Pool, which I’m convinced will eventually rank among their best work. The same effect has worked in Williams’ favour.

The eleven tracks here create an encompassing view of romantic pain in all its stages, through early desire (Come To Me, Beautiful Dress), communication breakdown (What’s Chasing You), jealousy (Party Boy), lingering feelings (Can I Call You) and straight-up despair (Love’s A Terrible Thing). What’s more, there isn’t a dud track among them.

Come To Me opens the album “down on the beach, with pail and spade”. The metaphor here is quick to reveal itself – “you’re spreading the pain/digging holes just to fill them again”. The vocals enter close-up and loud over the distant guitar, making for a gorgeous and appropriately intimate opener, expanded by a string section into glistening psychedelic chamber folk. “Come to me” goes the direct hook, starting the album with a simple declaration of desire before things get more complicated.

What’s Chasing You illustrates the beginning of a communication breakdown (“I don’t understand a single word you say/baby are you talking to me?”) over a backdrop of sunny infectious chamber pop a-la Father John Misty (indeed many of the instrumentals on this album will sound uncannily familiar to fans of I Love You Honeybear). But Williams’ songwriting is the polar opposite of Misty’s sarcastic posing. His lyrics, while often clever and vivid, are also direct and emotionally vulnerable when they need to be.

Party Boy shakes things up musically with the prominence of an up-tempo electronic drum beat and synthesizer lead. The song finds Williams’ in his bitterest phase of romantic withdrawal, well past any beating around the bush. “Party boy, I don’t like you” he sings directly, before warning “if I catch you sniffin’ around my pride and joy…you can party at the bottom of the sea.” Then just one song later, over the dark piano notes of Can I Call You, he’s proclaiming “jealousy’s an awful thing.” It’s this all-encompassing view of conflict and confusion that makes the album as a whole so compelling. Can I Call You finds the narrator trying and failing to adapt to singledom – “learn to love your solitude/I just don’t know what that means.”

And then there’s that voice. Williams’ voice is uniquely beautiful without ever being sugary, and while this has been noted for as long as he’s been releasing music, Make Way For Love finds his singing richer and more accentuated. This is brought out doubly with a generous helping of reverb applied to the vocals and throughout the mix (the production on the album is brilliantly atmospheric and does a lot to bring the songs to life, a change from the flatter drier approach of Marlon Williams). Just listen to the way he shapes the chorus line “let me wear you like a beautiful dress” in Beautiful Dress, with its highs, lows and changing accents throughout the syllables. On the darkest track, I Didn’t Make A Plan, he sings in a much lower register than normal, the striking change mixing perfectly with the gloomy wall of sound the piece builds into.

Aside from aspects of Party Boy and I Know A Jeweller, Make Way For Love sees Williams largely discarding the strong country flavour of his debut, in favour of a darker and more subdued approach and the strong influence of 50’s and 60’s R&B and classic pop. Love’s A Terrible Thing is an A+ piano ballad that sounds like it could be a cover of a show-song from a 60’s musical, without the cheesiness. The closing title track bears the influence of classic doo-wop, complete with spring reverb guitars, a rim-shot drumbeat, a string section and a spot-on melody.

The album’s biggest point of interest on first listen though is of course the duet with Aldous Harding herself, Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore, which was recorded after their separation over a long-distance session. As Williams has commented, “it made the most sense to have her singing on it,” and it does, not just contextually but sonically, the pair’s voices blending fantastically when singing in unison. The chorus sounds instantly iconic, a testament to the songwriters’ ear for perfect hooks. Man, even that first drum fill sounds iconic. The most touching moment comes at the end when Williams concludes the song alone without Harding’s company – “what am I gonna do/when I can see that you’ve been crying/and you don’t want no help from me.”

Dylan once famously said of Blood On The Tracks “it’s hard for me to relate to that…people enjoying that type of pain.” He was underestimating the power of a good song. Make Way For Love is by no stretch what you’d call a dark record, but there’s nevertheless a similar type of pain that flows throughout the album, and, despite Bob’s feelings, what pain could be more enjoyable than that which is presented in the form of eleven beautifully crafted songs? All up, Marlon Williams has delivered an instant classic of New Zealand songwriting and his finest work yet.

Ruben Mita