Album of the Year:
Billie Marten – Writing of Blues and Yellows
THOSE keenly observing might have noticed one name appearing on my blog…
PHOTO CREDIT: Harvey Pearson
the last few months. I am not sure what the plans of Billie Marten are in 2017 but one suspects it will be a combination of studies – she still has to balance academia and music – and working on new material. I know Marten has just stepped into the studio with Scott Quinn (not sure what the result will be: likely to be magic and marvellous) but one suspects there will be E.P./album/possible songs arriving. Billie Marten is an artist that does not have recording deadlines and demands from record labels – like U.S. giants being pressured by the bosses to get an album out by a certain date.
She is a seventeen-year-old comfortable being by herself and writing when the mood strikes her – creating music when the time is right and it is not being forced.
It is, because of that, I was so awed by her debut cut: the hugely nuanced and beautiful Writing of Blues and Yellows. It might seem like a subjective choice – going against the popular opinion of tastemakers and poll-conducting sites – but there are good reasons for it. When I reviewed the album for The Metropolist (http://www.themetropolist.com/music/album-reviews/album-review-billie-marten-writing-blues-yellows/) I was not only one of the first allowed access to the album – I was struck by someone who was compared to many but sounds like nobody else. The invariable Laura Marling comparisons came in, I have been putting names like Kate Bush, Eva Cassidy and Nick Cave in the same sentence, but the Ripon girl is very much her own singer. Most critics, when it comes to their favourite album, have been seduced by Beyoncé’s Lemonade; some go for Solange – everyone from David Bowie, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper topping other end-of-year lists. I agree Beyoncé’s career-defining album is a superb work – few can refute the dominating performances, immense passion and sense of command from the U.S. legend. It is, in my view, a top-ten worthy inclusion but not my number one pick. The fact NONE (maybe some will come through) of the polls I have seen included Writing of Blues and Yellows in their list is a bit of a shock.
Marten may be young (and at the debut album stage) but inferior albums have been making it into top ten/fifty lists. For me, it is the consistency and nuance that really grabs me. I know ‘nuance’ seems to be my buzz word but I do not speak that word lightly or without knowledge. There are few albums that are as revealing and gets-better-each-time-you-hear-it as Writing of Blues and Yellows. When I reviewed it (for The Metropolist) I, rather stupidly, considered Emily a track that sounds too much like others – perhaps it could have sat a bit further down the album. It was only a few weeks later its true power, beauty and potential were unveiled. That song was pipped by Radiohead’s Burn the Witch in terms of my favourite songs from 2016: other tracks from Marten’s album could make their way into the same list (Green, Teeth and Untitled among them). Emily is a song that continues to amaze: not just because of the potent and majestic vocal performance but the mature and rich songwriting. One of the few tracks on the album without any other writing contribution: it is Marten at her most singular, focused and ambitious. Building, layering electric guitars; swelling, heart-aching strings and ghostly, lost-in-the-wind vocal interjections made it but eerie and spellbinding.
It is not just Emily that captured my heart but quite a few – pretty much all – tracks on the album. Heavy Weather remains my standout because of its unbeatable chorus and stunning imagery; La Lune is a song unlike any other: Green one of the more spright and energised performances on the record – even if its lyrics project anxiety and self-doubt. It’s a Fine Day – one reviewer was foolish enough to label it pointless and expendable – shows how gripping Marten is when reducing technology to its bare bones – recorded on an app. one day as her dad mowed the lawn. Teeth is an honest and gut-wrenching testament from a young woman who lies through her teeth in order to keep the façade strong: she is suffering inside but does not want to let the world know.
I have stated Marten is beyond easy comparisons but naming her among her idols, even at these early junctions, is not rash.
Teeth, Untitled and Bird have various shades of Nick Drake – a combination of Bryter Layter and Pink Moon sounds – whereas Emily is a Marling-esque gem; Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell’s spirit can be detected in some of the vocal deliveries – bits of John Martyn in the finger-picking and authoritative acoustic stylings.
I have a lot of respect for other sites/magazine and the determinations they have made. I am not suggesting they should have Marten’s debut at the top of their lists: it is worthy of a place in their favourite twenty at the very least – in the top fifty, one would think?! Maybe Writing of Blues and Yellows is an album that will take a few more months before its true class and powers are realised; perhaps there is a leaning towards certain genres/types of music. Given the political unrest and mortality turbulence of this year – the passing of some music icons and racially-motivated, disturbing political decisions of ‘the people’ – musicians that tackle these concerns and provide escape are being celebrated. Marten’s future, as I started out by saying, is very much ahead of her – in the sense the best days are going to come in the next couple of years. Not to bring Laura Marling back into play but look at her trajectory: with each album new confidence and quality; a musician that grows stronger with each release and is one of the finest songwriters on the planet. If Marten keeps her passion and focus strong she could not only be producing a lot more albums but gain the same acclaim and reputation as a certain L.M.
As it stands, Writing of Blues and Yellows is not just an original, accomplished and gorgeous album from a bright and lovable songwriter: it emanates from someone unfazed and unaffected by the trappings of success; someone pure, honest and down-to-Earth.
One imagines Billie Marten ensconced in a quiet nook: pen in hand and mind adrift; conspiring and imagining the next song; lost in her own world and prisoner to the tease of thought and language.
All this is evident on her debut album and is the fuel that will continue to burn strong and hard into 2017. After releasing a cover of White Christmas (available across Spotify and SoundCloud) she will be enjoying Christmas and taking some time to recharge and relax. When 2017 kicks into view, one imagines she will be looking ahead. Whether that is gigs in France and a new E.P.; studying and a few new songs or a fully-fledged campaign to get a sophomore album out I am not sure. Whatever it is will be exciting and wonderful. Many argue an album like Lemonade or The Life of Pablo (Kanye West) addresses modern desires and provides relief, release and guidance. I argue, conversely and at the other end of the emotional spectrum, an album such as Writing of Blues and Yellows should receive equal acclaim, demand and attention. It is gentle, tender and thought-provoking; comforting, brave and soul-nourishing. Even if it did not crack your list of best albums this year: at the very least it should be afforded a chance to shine and reveal…
PHOTO CREDIT: Harvey Pearson
ALL of its wonderful beauty and power.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Payne
Writing of Blues and Yellows can be purchased here: