Mike Marlin’s new album The Secret Of My Success (see what he did there?) is the follow up to 2013’s widely lauded Grand Reveal and probably the strangest record you will hear all year. I say “probably” because 2016 is still young and we don’t know yet what Marlin has planned for the rest of the year. Marlin has suggested before that he believes in “making cathedrals out of matchsticks” and perhaps The Secret Of My Success is the fruition of this ultimately rather terrifying and abstract concept; with this record Mike has built the cathedral and burnt it down. Sardonically self-mocking, enigmatic and yet engaging, the album is full of darkly strategic reminiscences on a wide spectrum of topics dealing with compromise, disappointment and stifled ambition (Like A Photograph), descent into dementia (Avalanche), the vast scale of the universe and the meaning of a single life (Whale Hill and Missing Piece), the constant war between the false gods of science and religion (Gravity Lies), and the complex emotional webs that entangle and define us (The Secret and Caroline). Ultimately, it’s a collaboration between Marlin and celebrated Scottish collage artist and Aspect art prizewinner Colin Brown (www.colinbrown.eu) who has created paintings to accompany each song on the album; the paintings developed after long conversations during which Marlin would discuss the songs and supply photographs and art clippings whilst Brown took notes and sketched ideas. The resultant combination is an art project featuring both the aural aspects of Mike’s songs and the visual components of Colin’s interpretations of the songs.
The Secret Of My Success kicks off with Just Another Day – let’s say it’s like Richard Butler fronting an early Bauhaus recording produced by Tony Visconti – before morphing into the title track which features cello and an outro – “this is the secret of my success” – that barely exists and could easily hang around for a good deal longer. Missing Piece (which follows) is, naturally, effortlessly, addictive – all Michael Nyman/John Cale loop dynamics – and inhabits a netherworld where an image of a jigsaw piece that has somehow been lost from its box is as intriguing as anything you will hear this year: “by the sweeping of a hand/ by mechanical device/ but the rocks ground down to sand/ and I found the missing piece, I could not put it down.”
There’s more, of course – and on this conceptual, double vinyl bonanza, how could there not be? – and the barely real Whale Hill – not unlike a scarily prescient rock version of Portishead had washed up on a nearby beach – and the hugely evocative Blade Runner-thon Avalanche, are indicative of Marlin’s seemingly effortless grasp of le mot juste: when Marlin intones in apocalyptic mantra, “it’s harder than it seems to let go of your dreams” on the former and “don’t go to places that I don’t know, look me in the eye, is there anybody home, don’t show me faces that I don’t know, look me in the eyes and talk of love” – on Avalanche – you have to accept you’re in the presence of an exceptional wordsmith. But why pretend? Drowning – a sly, wryly reimagined visualization of Stevie Smith’s evocative poem of almost the same name – is a diversionary tactic but Like A Photograph – “in 1958 a woman’s place was in the home/ never learned to laugh/ never learned to scream/ never learned to cry/ never learned to dream” and Mother’s Eyes (co-written with Eleanor McEvoy)- `’you’ve got your father’s dreams and your mother’s eyes” – are surely the centrepiece of this record if not its coda. Indeed, most poignantly, Colin Brown has included a lovely, well thumbed photograph of Marlin’s mother for the superb collage that accompanies Like A Photograph and the song itself intersperses such crazed rocked out guitar trickery that you get the impression Marlin is sharing a joke with his mother from beyond the grave.
The Secret Of My Success completes its journey with Gravity Lies – the accompanying video features such appropriate moon stepping/larking footage you could be forgiven for thinking man only went there to provide a backdrop for this fabulous song; then Caroline – a song about love and a superb evocation of a bygone era barely remembered; and finally, the Loud Reed-esqueThe Checkout is not about a supermarket but instead about turning fifty and relative proximity of death – “I’ve travelled and come home again/Sleeping soundly/Half over, half under, half dead/Did you miss me?/You know it, you know/You’ll never make the same mistakes again/Before the checkout/Give it all, all, all.”
With artist Colin Brown’s significant contribution to this record, it follows naturally that the launch of The Secret of My Success will be an art exhibition with live music. For a week, starting on the 25th of April, Colin Brown’s artwork will be on display at Gallery Different (http://www.gallerydifferent.co.uk/home), a gallery in Fitzrovia that presents contemporary painting, sculpture, drawing, print, photography and mixed media from British and international artists. On the 26th and 27th April there will be live performances by Mike Marlin and the Melomaniacs. The album will be made available from May 5th and in addition to releasing ‘The Secret of My Success’ as a CD and digitally online, the album will also be available as a double vinyl in a limited edition box-set also containing the CD and a beautifully crafted book featuring Colin’s paintings alongside lyrics and further writing by Mike. The box-set will be available at Gallery Different.