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Small gig after small gig, traveling from one city or town to the next no matter what the size, sleeping in cars, tents, and apartment floors, Marlon Williams is a self-made, rising star among the country-folk scene. Through sheer will and hard work, the native of Lyttleton, New Zealand has earned every praise ushered on him, from the likes of Rolling Stone, The Australian, and The New Zealand Herald not to mention being nominated for five New Zealand Music Awards and an Australian ARIA. And all this by the age of 24 and without releasing a full-length album. These accolades and his swelling popularity indicate the drawing power of Williams, as people across the globe gravitate to his unique, expressive voice and his poignant storytelling.
At long last, the rest of the world will get the opportunity to discover New Zealand’s next great music export. On his self-titled, debut album, Williams showcases all the traits that have made him a son to thousands of music fans. Channeling everyone from late greats like Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings to contemporary singer-songwriters like Sam Beam (Iron & Wine) and Andrew Bird to even Colm Wilkinson of Les Misérables fame, Marlon Williams is an album that will resonate with people of all ages.
While Marlon Williams could be considered two distinct EPs separated along the aforementioned lines, it is truly a concept album or more accurately a literary work of genius. The entire album revolves around the lives of people living in a rural setting (Western Australia possibly) during the gold rush of the late 19th Century and the music matches the era. The album busts out like a stagecoach fleeing from a group of bandits with the wild, fast-paced country number, “Hello Miss Lonesome”, who is the heroine of the track. “After All” follows, and it is more of traditional country song in sound and theme (of a man leaving behind a loved one in search for wealth).
“Dark Child” slows things down, but this country-folk rocker is the album’s star. Stunning and emotionally powerful, the song is told through the eyes of a father who watches his child grow only to lose him too soon. As Williams sings, “Although the news came as no surprise, I always hoped that I would never have to bury a child”, you’re left in your place contemplating those nineteen words.
“I’m Lost Without You” is the first change-of-pace song. Filled with stunning strings and Williams’ hallowing voice, this song of heartbreak and longing echoes of the dramatic orchestral pop of the ’20s and ’30s. It is theatrical. It is mysterious. It is brilliant and beautiful, matching the haunting and complexity crafted by the likes of Leonard Cohen and Timber Timbre.
Williams returns to more traditional, acoustic folk and country-folk foundations on the next three songs, “Lonely Side of Her” and “Silent Passage”. In the spirit of these genres, Williams’ takes on the role of the narrator, describing the emptiness felt by the heroine in the former and the loss and suffering felt by an entire community in the latter. It’s a splendid display of an artist who is more storyteller than singer-songwriter.
“Strange Things” is another acoustic folk tune, but, as the title would suggest, with a spooky side. The song could be about paranormal activity following the death of Lucy or the imaginations and tricks being played in one’s head. As you listen to the track, you could probably imagine yourself abandoned in a mid-19th Century home with its decaying floorboards and stained glass windows, where every creak and gust of wind sends a shiver down your back.
The surprise of the album might be “When I Was a Young Girl”, where Williams transposes himself into the body and mind of a young girl. But the surprises aren’t limited to Williams’ storytelling, but how his voice rises a couple of octaves and takes on a Broadway, theatrical style. The song, as well, could very well have been written for a modern-day interpretation of Les Misérables, specifically a dying Fantine – or in this case, Little Miss Lonesome – recalling all the harm done to her and all of her past mistakes. And like the solos of the classic play, Williams enraptures you with his voice, the delicate strumming of the acoustic guitar, and the sad, despairing story.
The album ends on a solemn note. Aptly hymnal in its quality, “Everyone’s Got Something To Say” is a song about people saying their final goodbyes, as our protagonist is laid to rest. Williams, though, doesn’t overdramatize the event, but instead makes it a beautiful and glorious occasion. It’s a gorgeous, contemplative track that perfectly hits every musical and personal note.
And nearly perfect is Marlon Williams’ debut album. It is a majestic piece of art, and yes art. To call it an album would be doing a disservice to what Williams has achieved because Marlon Williams is a piece of literature, a stunning composition of music, and a beautifully orchestrated play all rolled up into one. It’s unlike anything you will hear this year or even beyond, a dazzling effort by a truly remarkable and unique artist.
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