The definition of style as substance
Marlon Williams’ self-titled 2016 debut was an alt-country and bluegrass record that intermittently broke out into dazzling, haunting violins and backing vocals on songs like the excellent “Dark Child” and “I’m Lost Without You.” Make Way for Love feels like the opposite: a richly detailed baroque pop or chamber pop record anchored by an occasional country rhythm or tambre. It’s a bold change of pace that feels familiar at the same time, held back from greatness by lyrics that ping-pong from abstract to direct while being too scant for either approach to develop fully.
With the help of Noah Georgeson, a producer most known for his work with Joanna Newsom, Williams squeezes out textures and atmosphere track after track, a damn-near perfect mix of organic and synthetic. It’s got a similar gothic tone as Oliver Peck, yet the sounds are nowhere near as homogenous. From the shimmer of reverb-touched strumming on “What’s Chasing You” to the spongey patter underlying a great Interpol-esque post-punk groove of “Party Boy” to the psychedelic bass playing off the faint twinklers and shuttering violins of “The Fire of Love,” it’s a perfect album for audiophiles as sounds, and vocals fade in and out and bounce across the stereo.
Outside of “Party Boy,” there’s never a lot of momentum or a true rock track, but the slower tempos are so spellbinding that no one will miss the speed of “After All.” In the midst of all this noise, the stripped-down moments like the outro of “Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore” or the spare ballad “I Didn’t Make a Plan” still resonate with just as much power across the vast mixes that let every noise and instrument breathe and expand naturally.
Williams got his start working alongside Delaney Davidson, another genre-bender rooted in country, yet their voices could not be more dissimilar. Davidson has a much more traditional drawl, whereas Williams’ cooing baritone was fully complimented by the rougher production and higher vocal tones from his debut. Make Way for Love lets him dabble in his lower tones, and while he could have easily been a Cohen or Orbison knockoff, the vocal arrangements come in once again to make the delivery something special.
Much like his debut, Williams and his producer know how to layer the background vocals and his own vocal track with beautiful yet eerie detail like the best of baroque pop. “Can I Call You” lets his voice oscillate and drop in and out of multi-tracking to great effect, while “Make Way for Love” mixes whispy, fading chanting with strident cooing, almost like Williams is slipping in and out of consciousness on stage.
While the music itself conjures fantastic imagery, such vividness is not replicated in the lyrics. Yes, this brand of chamber folk is meant to be a mood piece, and thus individual lyrics do not matter as much as the overall emotional effect they have. Fatalistic, sour ballads are a dime-a-dozen, and while Williams could separate himself from his influences vocally, he can’t do the same in his writing.
“Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore,” a duet with his former girlfriend Aldous Harding, has some actual punch due to the audiences’ knowledge of their history a la Ariana Grande’s “Thank You Next,” and “Love Is a Terrible Thing” has a couple of darkly humorous lyrics in the hook surrounding a bleeding-heart romantic who starts to think that numbness is the right way to go. These two highlights symbolize the contradictory mood of the record, with the former going for bluntness and the latter going for imagery. Given how textured and rich the instrumentals are, perhaps they will synthesize with the lyrics in a different way for each listener, and what one reads as undercooked will seem profound to another. On sound quality and vocal performance alone, Make Way For Love is worth a listen; it’s just a shame that such unique music is not given more distinct content.