Friday, February 17, 2012

REVIEW// Mike Marlin: Man on the Ground

    Londoner Mike Marlin battled depression and alcoholism. An unpleasant fact, but a fact all the same. I cannot begin to fathom what life was like for Marlin, suffocating sadness an ever-present threat, but from the experience something wonderful has emerged. The wall of desperation stretched far, its abhorrent proportions a barrier to recovery. Marlin's new album 'Man on the Ground' is an acknowledgement of sorts, more so than even his debut. It admires the strange, twisting dimensions of depression's great hurdle, commending the sharp jutting contours of its vast, snarling façade. Through adulation of the immeasurable, the incomprehensible can be comprehended, and its this heartfelt recognition that life isn't always kind that makes 'Man on the Ground' so fantastic. Its intelligent combination of the somber and the sincere is offset by a gloriously hopeful sense of unparalleled euphoria, a mixture of the disappointingly realistic and its acceptance forming a refreshing blend.
Released twelve months after his debut album 'Nearly Man', 'Man on the Ground' shows a number of small imperfections. Rather than a negative however, sometimes I listen and an innate human quality seems to emerge. An infrequent repetition of certain sonic phrases lends both a monotony and a comforting consistency, rough moments a reflection of life's lows rather than a lack of flawless refinement. Marlin's lyricism is a key feature of the LP as well, so the occasional predictable rhyme and unusual line is easily overlooked. It is probably true that given time to mature, 'Man on the Ground' would have flown above any criticism, but in being on the ground the relation you can have with the music is multiplied ten-fold. There can be bad errors and there can be wonderfully human ones. Marlin has recorded eleven tracks that try and succeed in ensuring they limit themselves to the latter.

A multitude of influences reveal themselves within said eleven tracks. The National's post-rock aesthetic and use of piano is emulated. Johnny Cash's lyrical style and David Bowie's voice are all recognisable within each number, Elbow's love for orchestral instrumentation layered over both. Lou Reed, Badly Drawn Boy and a number of other inspirations seep into the music too, but surely this leaves little room for individuality? Marlin's management of his influences however is an intelligent one, the amalgamation of sounds mixed in such a way as to deter the label 'tribute act'. Instead, a unique authenticity emerges from these layers, the complexity of their combination providing a style and personality all their own!

The LP opens with 'The Magician' and its downbeat vibe. A ticking sound carries Marlin's vocals, gruff and despondent, yet eerily familiar. They warm, climbing and building into an incredible chorus, harmonious and somewhat smile-inducing. 'The Town's 80s-inspired synths back catchy lyricism, melancholia a wistful constant. Verses are broken by deep, evocative interludes, a reverberated sample drowning out the finish only to coax forth the next number 'Steve McQueen'. A tribute to the late and great American actor, something about the words hits home. A subtle, teary-eyed instrumental fluctuates between vocals as humbling as ever. The personification of death is wondrous, if nothing else. 'Lost And Found's overwhelming emotion and gut-wrenching builds are followed by 'Left Behind'. Its vintage guitar and wild west sense of loss and emptiness mark the end of 'Side A'.

The start of 'Side B' is 'Hymn To Disappointment', one of my favourite numbers on the LP. Contrary to its name, these three minutes are highlighted by their upbeat nature. Hopeful and reflective, the fast-paced build from 2:07 is fantastic, adding a great deal to the hook that follows it. The catchiest refrain on the album, it leads into 'Better', The National and their influence at its most noticeable. The 'Girl From Chelsea Bridge' succeeds 'Better' as the bitter-sweet reminiscence of a past relationship. Nostalgic and yet strangely content, the slow drum and soft piano of 'Heart Beat' are subtly different. A more immediate sound rests upon your ears, warm and relaxed instrumentation mooting a floundering romance. I think the next song 'Grand Central Station' is relatively formulaic, and therefore it washed over me. It isn't bad per say, but suffers from that spate of repetition I mentioned before.

The final track 'Travel The World' draws 'Man on the Ground' to a perfect conclusion. An illustrious and suitably gratifying number, Eleanor McEvoy swaps violin for vocals, forming a duet as heartbreaking as a hopeless fascination. Strings lament a loss, the lyrics telling of unwilling rebellion. It's a truly beautiful song, and a truly stunning finish to the album. It's a record that outdoes Marlin's debut in nearly every way, despite being just twelve months older. Varied in all its influences but consistently magnificent, hear a sample from 'Steve McQueen' below, then go and download 'Man on the Ground' from Marlin's website here!

You might have noticed that this is the first post after a short and completely unexpected hiatus. Life seemed simply get in the way. Nevertheless, I apologise for not replying to any emails, the pile of which is now inexplicably large. Thank you to everyone for not unliking the blog in my absence, and for your graceful patience! You can expect a lot of reviews!