Marlon Williams – My Boy
(Virgin Music Australia)
Reviewed by Tim Gruar.
‘My Boy’ is Marlon Williams’ third solo and an artistic re-emergence, transitioning from his trademark solemn, Americana-inflected velvet crooning into a more upbeat, and sometimes playful, cabaret/Lounge singer persona.
2018’s ‘Make Way For Love’ was a perfect study into controlled melancholy and public heartache, an overwhelmingly beautiful portrait of his break up with Aldous Harding. It was highly successful for Williams, boosting up overseas tours, major festival appearances and guest spots on high profile shows like Conan and ‘Later with Jools Holland’. We all swooned and bristled with pride during his cameo in the Oscar winning film ‘A Star Is Born’, and again in the art films ‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’, ‘Lone Wolf’ and the Netflix series ‘Sweet Tooth’.
As collaborator of the moment, he’s been in high demand, working with Lorde, Florence Welch, duetting with Courtney Barnett (recording the song ‘Not Only I’), Paul Kelly, Yo-Yo Ma, Kacy and Clayton (recording the album ‘Plastic Bouquet’ album), and composing music for the film ‘Juniper’.
To a degree, ‘My Boy’ draws on all that experience. “I’ve always explored different character elements in my music,” says Williams in his press. “And I think the more I get into acting, the more tricks I’m learning about representation and presentation. I’m trying to make my world’s feed into each other as much as possible. To get braver and bolder with exploring shifting contexts and new ways of doing things.”
Like so many artists I’ve reviewed this year, Williams, too, was greatly impacted by all the was going on in the world – particularly his global travel plans. Forced into hibernation, he holed up at home in the Banks Peninsular to take a few breaths and ‘decompress’ after the hectic 70 date ‘Make Way For Love’ tour. “It was such a big monolithic project, that record.” No doubt, dealing with material that constantly reminds you of difficult and painful personal events is exhausting. “I wanted to get out from under its shadow.”
That gave him back time to reach out to friends and whanau and to recommence his te Reo studies (Williams whakapapas to Ngāi Tahu and Ngāitai). It also allowed him time to work on new demos and explore new avenues away from the themes and influences of the recent tour. In there, he was shaping concepts of self-identity, escapism, tribalism, whakapapa and (as described on his website) “ruminations on the role of masculinity and mate-ship”.
“There’s a lot of male shapes on the record,” says Williams of ‘My Boy’. “Growing up an only child, I had to outsource my brothers and build a world around me. So, while masculinity is a big theme, it’s really subsumed by broader explorations of vitality, and the social and cultural value placed on legacy.”
To create new sounds, Williams boldly abandoned his long-trusted backing band, The Yarra Benders, in favour of working with Mark ‘Merk’ Perkins and recording at Neil Finn’s Roundhead studios in late 2020 with producer Tom Healy (Tiny Ruins, The Chills). His new group included drummer Paul Taylor (Feist), bassist Cass Basil (Ladyhawke, Tiny Ruins), and Healy on guitars and synths. The album also features work from long time tour friend Delaney Davidson, Dave Kahn (the one and only Yarra Bender to appear), and Neil’s own ‘our boy’, Elroy Finn, on drums and percussion. Creatively, Williams wanted new personalities in the room to “allow me to escape myself. When everyone’s still working out each other’s roles, there’s an unsettling and exciting tendency to go off in different directions.”
The title track kicks things off. It’s a bright, breezy strumming earworm. You immediately think of Jack Johnson and Flight of the Conchords, especially in the lush chorus (‘Do Do Do Di Di Do Do’), sung in William’s deliciously candy-toned falsetto. I’m not exactly sure of the topic of this song, but you get the feeling the voice here is of a proud parent or partner – “He’s all to me and more / Nothing can touch my boy/ He’s all I’m living for / Nothing can touch my boy.”
It’s gorgeously ironic too. Kind of mocking and respectful, at the same time but still the kind of thing that would escape from the lips of a proud parent. You are never sure if the sentiment is sincere or mocking – or both. The lyrics give away no real clues. Even a word or two of te Reo pops up: “This sorry world would start to grieve me/ Ohh, he walks with the Atua / Nothing can touch my boy.”
The song clearly resonates with a wider audience, though, having already garnered some critical acclaim, and, just this week, made the top five finalists for the 2022 APRA Silver Scroll Award.
‘Easy Does it’ is more of a warm ocean breeze. A nod to the Pacific slide guitar styles of Bill Sivesi and Do Ho. It starts off with a dreamy hula groove before expanding out into a plush sonic carpet that even Lawrence Arabia would be proud of.
Again, a gentle sprinkling of te reo, which just enhances the whole vibe of the song further: “Ngã mihi to your friends when they stop calling / Musta missed you one too many times / But it’s on them to get what they need from you / It’s not on you to hold the line”
‘River Rival’ was a complete surprise. A new direction, as Williams channels his playlist at the time – “I was listening to more steely, New Romantic stuff, like Duran Duran, John Grant, Perfume Genius, the Bee Gees. All those things fed into the machine.” It also, I think shows a conscious (or unconscious) admiration for his contemporaries like Anthony Tonnon, especially in the execution of those chunky key tones and a stark drum track that flows like a disturbing undercurrent throughout this track.
You can’t ignore the swagger and sway of the droopy, ‘synthy’ hooks in ‘Don’t Go Back’ which seems to mirror the hoot of the ruru. This is a bit of a reference to Williams’ wild ‘Party Boy’ character.
Songs like ‘Thinking of Nina’ and the deliciously melancholic ‘My Heart, The Wormhole’ borrow melodrama from the 80’s new romantics, especially Spandau Ballet and Ultravox. The latter feels more like a typical Williams crooner, synthed up and perfectly refitted for our current tik tok listenership. The stop-start-stop-go lurching in the song is like multiple voices in an argument, punctuated with awkward silences: “Don’t you dare speak to your father that way / That’s what you say”.
Apparently, Williams spent a lot of time binge watching with his flatmate and sound engineer Tom Lynch. One outcome was the ‘80s noir tinged ‘Thinking of Nina’, inspired by the Russo-US spy drama ‘The Americans’. I enjoyed this one so much, I actually might go back and watch the series again, myself.
‘Princes Walk’ unashamedly borrows the vibe and flow from Pink Floyd’s ‘Us and Them’, yet still feels like a Williams original in every other way. It’s a warm, velvety blanket of tune.
‘Morning Crystals’ has a great 70’s New Seekers flavour, and is a great sing along, like a good campfire or marae strummer should be. I couldn’t get their tune ‘Morningtown’ out of my head. You can blame my Standard Two teacher and her music appreciation sessions for that one! And just like that tune the tempo on the upbeat secures the hook and it’s infectious to a fault.
There’s only one proper slow croon on this album. ‘Trips’ takes its own sweet time. Complaining, musing, resolving. The lyrics are the inner thoughts with an outside voice. Again, Williams seems to be appropriating parental language tropes, which are most aptly represented in his outlines on the chorus: “I’ve just about had it to here with you all” that repeats and repeats, wrapped in a swirling crescendo of strings and symphonics. This is high drama for every kitchen sink.
The B-movie style organ riff on ‘Soft Boys Make the Grade’. That one has more postmodern poetry – “Was gonna write it all down in a letter / But here I am in your DMs”.
All the sonic and emotional whiplash through My Boy’s eleven songs is intentional. “As a live performer one of my favourite things to do is blindside people with upsetting mood shifts. I really wanted that to come across on this record.”
Ultimately musicians these days are all magpies, and Williams is no exception. He creates a kind of psychedelic soup to flow over his cover of Barry Gibb’s ‘Promises’ (which appeared on Streisand’s ‘Guilty’ collab with Gibb back in the 80’s), a song I would have usually hit ‘FFWD’ on the tape machine. Funny, that in the right hands even the most unmemorable songs can find new life.
“I wanted one song that wasn’t mysterious to me – a love song that didn’t feel weighed down by anything,” says Williams of the final track. “It’s a parting plea to not read cynicism into it. A statement of solidarity with all the flawed characters in the preceding ten tracks. No one escapes or we all do.”
What’s cool about this album is William’s decision to find touchstones close to him. Previous work referenced his interests in Americana, Country, Folk and 70’s US/UK Pop acts like Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Fleetwood Mac and the Band. But on ‘My Boy’ you can hear a distinctive Māori strum in his guitar – the iconic chinka chink, chu,chika chig. A style that comes across in virtually every waiata – on tv, in classrooms and on marae. It’s a style that’s in our blood and dna. It’s great to see him embracing this.
In interviews Williams says groups like the Maniapoto Voices were a big influence alongside the waiata he and his mother sang at the marae when he was younger. For him, this is reaching back to his roots and drawing on those experiences to strengthen his own works.
Overall, ‘My Boy’ is one of the most comforting and nourishing albums you will hear this year. Music to soothe your soul and uplift your heart. Throughout, William’s charm is front and centre, even in the more ironic or darker moments. And that ‘strum’ and use of te reo just adds a level of authenticity – we can claim him, indeed – ‘Our Boy’, ‘ta maua tama’!
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