Review Summary: Paul Marshall's new project may be painted with one color, but it's a beautiful shade of crimson.
Hey guys, remember Paul Marshall? Probably not, but, for the uninformed, he released a rather incredible folk album back in 2007 called Vultures
that went almost completely unnoticed. I stumbled upon it by trying to download a different album and getting Vultures instead, and it quickly became one of my favorite albums of that year. The album bathed in a Pink Moon
aesthetic, almost entirely a solo acoustic album with Marshall’s competent voice soothingly driving each song. His deft fingerpicking certainly recalled Nick Drake’s best moments, and his compositional style predates Kristian Matsson’s (The Tallest Man on Earth) fluidity, though perhaps lacking the cathartic nature of Matsson’s songs.
In 2010, Marshall is back with a new name, a new, high profile label (Bella Union), and a new handlebar mustache. For all intents and purposes, Lone Wolf completely denies and leaves behind the Paul Marshall of Vultures
, as musically, Lone Wolf seems more like a Sufjan Stevens ensemble than the project of a singer-songwriter like Marshall. In many songs, the guitar is not even the central focus. Before analyzing the album, it is worth noting the remarkable transformation Marshall underwent in the past three years, because The Devil and I
may have been an uncomfortable, shoddy first album in a new style, but instead, the album emotes confidence and competence, proving Marshall an extremely gifted musician and composer.
If anyone does remember Vultures
, even just one track, the Rhodes piano and blunt lyrics of opening track, “This Is War” should shock the listener. Indeed, the lyrics are blunt to a fault with questionable lines such as, “I use my chemistry skills to bake her every pill she could swallow/She prayed to God and she called me a sinner/Science isn’t the way to win her.” But Marshall gets this awkwardness out of the way in the first minute, perhaps to assert his change forcefully, and the song dramatically improves throughout its duration. Halfway through the song, Marshall surprises everyone, even a fresh listener, with a dramatic climax of trumpet melodies and trombone accompaniment, proving his compositional prowess. Thus, while certainly not a highlight on the album, “This Is War” sets the dark, troubled tone of the album while asserting Marshall’s compositional talent away from the guitar.
Some songs do sound something like expanded versions of compositions from Vultures
, such as “We Could Use Your Blood”, which takes a fingerplucked chord progression and a typical Marshall vocal melody, and places layers of vocal harmonies and subtle horn melodies on top of it. This support allows Marshall to sing with more power, extending beyond his delicate tone to powerfully state the title of the song, “We could use your blood to heat this hotel.” “Russian Winter” uses similar tactics with strings instead of harmonies and horns, while “15 Letters” calls in piano and vocal harmonies for backup.
Lyrically, the album is drenched in darkness, from “15 Letters,” spoken from the voice of a dead man haunting the wife who killed him, to closer “The Devil and I (Part II)”, which summarizes the tone of the album with the opening lines “The devil and I were alone in my house last night/He laughed at my joke, struck a match, burned the place to the ground.” It is relentlessly depressing, recalling Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s I See a Darkness
in atmosphere. The lack of change in mood may overwhelm the listener and makes what should be musically memorable moments blend in with the rest of the album.
Perhaps it is a contradiction for Marshall to title his new project Lone Wolf while he has so much support on the album, but every song is about him and his voice. All other instruments, through the production of the album and through Marshall’s vocal style, are deemed subordinate. Even on the instrumental “The Devil and I (Part I)”, there is a sense that the ensemble is contributing to a greater compositional whole, no doubt from the influence of Marshall’s guiding hand, despite the fact that his guitar does not appear anywhere in the track. The piano carries the melody throughout, but there is no sense of protruding from the ensemble aside from the right hand of the piano being the only instrument in that higher pitch register.
Despite the added instrumentation and extended compositions, The Devil and I
is Paul Marshall’s album through and through. While not every track features his guitar patterns weaving in and out of the texture, his compositional hand steadily guides every instrument, every melody, every chord into the place where Marshall wants it. Yet, Marshall’s desires sometimes hinder the compositions. The Devil and I lacks moments of extreme power, and it is hard to identify high points on the album. Still, the album is consistently good, so consistent that the album reaches the echelon of excellence.