The track, Mice, is available via:
9th September, 2018
THIS is going to be a 'shorter' (it's still quite chunky!) review than usual…
but one I felt I had to schedule in! There have been some fantastic and inspiring releases this year. I am still reeling from Anna Calvi’s Hunter and IDLES’ Joy as an Act of Resistance – two great albums that have just come out and left a huge impression on my mind! They are masterful works from two of our most special and talented acts. Paul Simon and Paul McCartney have released, last week, incredible albums and we get to see old masters and newer talents working alongside one another. It has been a great year for music and, with a few months left on the calendar, 2018 has thrown another gem into the treasure chest. I am one of Billie Marten’s biggest fans and was one of the first journalists to review her 2016 debut album, Writing of Blues and Yellows – for a now-defunct site called The Metropolist. I hope, when her new album is released, I can be one of the first to grab that and review it (it will be for Too Many Blogs this time). Aside from making a couple of silly judgements – I felt the tracks Emily and Green were weaker than the rest; the former, especially, is a masterpiece – I was blown away by this relatively fresh and untested talented. I also said, in that review, the album would be bettered by the young star but, in fact, its strengths and beauties are being revealed this far down the line. It is a record that continues to amaze and reveal hidden sides – a truly wonderful creation that has no weakness. I also compared Marten, when the album came out, to Kate Bush. Both released their debut albums as teenagers (Bush was a couple of years older than Marten) and both knock you sideways with their incredible voices. Both are impeccable and original lyricists and they both have few other bodies helping the music come together. Maybe the comparisons end there but it is exciting to see, forty years after Kate Bush arrived on the scene, another British teenager who looks certain to enjoy a very long and brilliant career.
Some commentators have puffed out their cheeks in relief that, after two years, Marten is back – it brings me back to Bush and, in 1980, when she came back with Never for Ever (after only two years away) it was as though she had gone missing and been rescued at sea! Nowadays, everyone wants music instantly and if an artist releases a successful record, they are expected to get straight back into the studio and follow it. Marten’s new material arrives after not so long a gap. Consider artists like London Grammar and Royal Blood who left longer pauses between their debut and sophomore records – neither have the same complexities and resonance as Marten – and it is really not that long at all! In any case, I felt she was about to release something and had a sense an album was on its way. Lo and behold, Mice has scuttled into the music world (it has been played live once or twice prior but it is new to most of us). One of my fears, following Writing of Blues and Yellows, was that Marten would drastically change her sound. At the end of 2016, critics scandalously omitted the album from their top-fifty (it was my favourite of the year) and many artists, wanting more commercial attention, would shift and compromise who they are to get ahead. The cover art/photos for Mice suggests a more mature, edgy and alluring artist – the cover sees Marten’s back, drops of water and goosebumps showing; her hair flowing and a sense of intrigue in the mind. Another promotional photo sees her in water, hair wet and a rather sullen look on her face. Those images are, at once, quite sensual, mysterious and grown-up. Consider the songwriter who adorned the cover of Writing of Blues and Yellows. It is a painting of Marten and shows her long hair showing, a focused look on her face and a sense of calm and beauty are evident. Match that against the new images and would we see a songwriter attacking Pop, Electro or a harder edge of Folk?! My heart was in my mouth – as her sound is perfect as it is – and, within the first few notes of Mice, it seemed like business as usual!
The two years since her debut album and now have seen Marten tour and play festivals. She has been writing and spending time taking stock; having a bit of a breather and studying. I am not sure whether the nineteen-year-old is balancing university with music but it seems, aside from a slightly different look in a couple of shots, she is the same woman we fell for back in 2016. Her Twitter account is filled with the same charming, kooky and humorous posts she beguiled us with back then – recent tweets include her snapping a rainbow and appearing standing by a tent at a festival with her thumb aloft. Her Instagram feed has the same photos and moments we’re used to. From snaps at her relatives or Marten hanging out and playing guitar; the multi-talented artist has not cut her hair, slapped on make-up and decided to reinvent herself as a mainstream Popstar-in-waiting. Pleasingly, it is her grounded and unique contours (not many teenage artists are so relatable and interesting) that go into her latest single. Writing of Blues and Yellows was released two years ago this month (23rd) and it seems like autumn is a season that suits Marten. That album had a crisp and autumnal feel; some slightly wintery and Christmas-ready songs in there – no surprise she would release her new material during the autumn. Although the sound and instant reaction are pleasingly familiar; there are changes and slight modifications. Writing of Blues and Yellows (aside from the song, Green) had fairly little percussion and, when it did appear, there was a sense of nimbleness and spring. Here, the percussion is more straight-forward and, in fact, sort of plays out of time with the guitar. The electric guitar has wooziness to it that suggests something a little confused, dizzy and in search of sanctuary...
It is a fascinating blend that marries the best electric moments of her debut album (Emily seems like the obvious example) and that reliable and spellbinding beauty that was rampant throughout the record. The guitar and percussion never stride too heavily and steal too much focus: they support the heroine as she talks about living her life all wrong; it seems that, lately, she is making unwise choices. Thematically, there is the same introspection and anxiety we found on Teeth and Lionhearted (from Writing of Blues and Yellows); the watery promotional image, in fact, makes me think of the doomed and submerged figure that was sung about in Bird. Before the first verse has been completed, Marten is mixing the old with the new. The production is beautifully clear and concise to allow the voice to shine up-front and sing loud (it is wonderfully clear; like her lips are right by the microphone) and you get caught in that odd wave of thudded and sparse percussion and twirling, staggering (in a physical way) guitar. Marten’s defining traits – her immaculate voice and deep, emotional lyrics – define Mice. If her single, Live, suggested a young woman ready to explore the world and see cities like Berlin; it seems, after returning and drinking in foreign waters, she is tasting the cold rain of England. Marten wrote Mice (or parts of it) during a miserable day in Cornwall (I wonder whether that is because of the weather or her mood at the time?) and recorded it in London with long-time collaborator, Rich Cooper. The songwriter felt, prior to writing it, she lacked purpose and felt empty. The lethargic and slumbered drums are the definition and embodiment of Marten’s weary shoulders and lacking smile. Maybe she has experienced bad relationships or struggled to find her place and feel connected with those around her. Whilst one sympathises with the heroine and forgives a musical frown (her debut album mixed anxiety and self-assessment with breezy and lighter songs like Hello Sunshine). Even when she is unpacking a clouded psyche and sense of alienation, it is the tenderness and crystal-clear elegance of her voice that buckles the knees.
The way she can elicit a sensual breath or hold a pure note to the heavens; go down to a more sullen key and then bring it back into poetic, balletic territory – if her personal life has been muddled and bad the last year, she has not lost her skillset and unique abilities! Marten’s smile is on the backseat and wall; she has separated the ones she loves and hates – she has said she saw people in black-and-white and was the anomaly in the middle – and is experiencing some spiritual depression. It is understandable for a successful teenage artist to feel uprooted and changed compared to the person who started to record the songs for Writing of Blues and Yellows. She has been exposed to big crowds and attention and had the task of following an album up that gained big critical respect. You can tell Marten is assessing a struggling time – one can imagine her sitting in the rain and having these lines going through her head – but knows there are positives to be found. “I can do…”, things that, as she attests “no human can do” and, whilst that is followed by confessions of a doubtful personality (judging herself and others) I get the sense the heroine realises her gifts and the fact she is a wonderful person. It is natural to doubt those around you, even often, and the songwriter seems to be too harsh on herself. If songs on her debut album, such as Heavy Weather and Hello Sunshine, brought you into the weather and exposed you to the elements; here, there is much more intimacy and closeness. You get the sense Marten is not outside but cloistered and contained in a safe space; maybe sitting in her room and watching nature go by. The title, Mice, is never really explained and that mysterious, oblique nature allows the listener to conspire. Does Marten see herself as a diminutive and vulnerable creature, susceptible to screams, fear and someone whacking her with a cricket bat?! Is she this fragile and lovable soul that is misunderstood or struggles to be heard? Is the title a reference to Three Blind Mice and an update to that rhyme? I feel like stature and vulnerability are at heart and, when looking at promotional photos of her in water and shivering, you know she is exposing her soul and bare bones.
The most affecting lyric in the song are the words “I’m tired”. Those words are delivered breathily and with a genuine sense of fatigue. The words hold and then fall; they seem to float and hold much more than two syllables – the heroine is trying to find her place and be happy but keeps making wrong steps and this is taking its toll on her body. Whilst there is a slew of younger female singer-songwriters who can wield a guitar and sing from the heart; there is nobody that comes close to what Billie Marten can do. For my money, her voice is richer and more beautiful than any out there. Her lyrics, not as poetic on Mice as, say, La Lune (the opening track from her debut album), are very direct and urgent. The Billie Marten who shed musical tears on Teeth is still looking for a hug and answers that will set her free. Coming back with a single that is more lyrically straight and direct is a good move. You can understand and empathise where she is coming from but there are still expressions that make me wonder. I am curious whether a breakup has changed her worldview or she is struggling to bond and understand her friends and family. Maybe success and critical pressure is creating a weight on her back or, simply, she is a young woman who is not quite where she wants to be right now. I imagine Marten as someone who could reside in a Parisian apartment with flowers by the window, paintings adorned throughout and a rather quaint yet historic-looking décor (a mixture of literature, bohemian touches and musical accoutrement). The teenager who wrote lines on a dead man’s bench in Cornwall, I feel, pines for European sun and art; an exploration and a sense of freedom. Elongating words and holding lines creates this gorgeous and spiritual thing. Pure emotion and naked confession are wrung from every line. Marten, as I glean from interviews and what I know of her, seems happiest when settled writing or with a book; some great John Martyn or Jeff Buckley vinyl close at hand and that sense that she is in her natural environment.
If some things have not changed since 2016, it is clear Marten herself has encountered transformation and new challenges. Mice might be a red herring in regards to her new album – we have no release date or title but Marten says it is ready and finished – but I feel we will get the same blend we saw in Writing of Blues and Yellows. Expect a woman wrestling with personal doubts and looking to find romance, happiness and new lands. There will be, I assume, songs about her mind and personal life; tales of ill-fated heroines and optimistic cuts that find her eyes open and her heart beating fast. I am not 100% sure but I am excited to see what comes next from her. If many end-of-year-pollsters failed to recognise the nuance and stunning variety of her debut album, I hope Marten realises it is a perfect thing that needs no abandonment, cosmetics and doubt. I feel the electric guitar will play more of a part (it showed itself on her debut but there was a lot of acoustic guitar and piano) and she is documenting a different period of her life. Mice finds her one album down and an artist who has seen the world; wondering what comes next and whether she is as open and kind as she should be. Billie Marten is that complex mix of ambitious and homebound. She loves the nature and quiet of Yorkshire but she yearns for travel and foreign lands; the chance to find fresh buzz, culture and people. She, in many ways, is like me: there is that hot ambition but, no matter what you do and how much you progress, there is always that feeling you can do better or are struggling. I can understand her viewpoint on Mice but there are countless hearts that love her and numerous arms willing to snuggle her close. I cannot get that image of Billie Marten sitting on a dead man’s bench (I wonder who he was?!) writing the last verse to the song. Like Eleanor Rigby in The Beatles’ famous song; you have the loneliness of a graveyard that comes to mind and the rain falling down; a tragic figure that does not have a face but, with very few words, you can picture them. Maybe Billie Marten’s Revolver is a few years away but, right now, she is proving there is nobody quite like her! Mice is a song you listen to time and time again. Oddly, it has a Christmas, snowy vibe to it. You can imagine the heroine walking in the cold or sitting by a fireside; looking out of the window and contemplating what comes next. The artist we were seduced by in 2016 has not left us and, in those two years, she has picked up new directions and her voice seems to be even stronger (if that is possible?!). Mice is a portrait of a woman who fears losing those who she loves and misunderstanding people in a destructive way. Alas, young poet..we understand you and know where you are coming from. We all love what you do and who you are – her Instagram posts and odd tweets make me smile – and there is never any chance, when you put out such wondrous music…
YOU will ever be unappreciated and alone!
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