On the cover of his third solo album My Boy, Marlon Williams looks like he’s dressed for gym class in 1978. It’s a candid shot of the New Zealand singer-songwriter. He’s wearing shin-high socks and high-waisted shorts, standing widely in front of a group of men digging a hole. If you ask me, I think Marlon and the diggers are going to go hit the roller rink after they finish with that hole.
There’s a lot that immediately reads as ‘70s pastiche on My Boy. The artwork’s shadows and earthy greens recall some albums by the decade’s singer-songwriter heroes. From the Paul Simon-esque “doo-doos” of the title track to the gauze of Mellotron that softens the album to the blown-out balladry of the Barry Gibb cover, My Boy is coated in nostalgia. It seems like the only reference to the 21st century is the mention of DMs on “Soft Boys Make The Grade” (a song title that is also decidedly not influenced by the past).
But these vintage inspirations aren’t for the sake of aesthetics. Williams uses the analog, dusty-record warmth of 1970’s AOR as a lexicon for dissecting his relationship with masculinity. On “My Boy,” his voice glides along the easy pulse of the track, “He’s why I’m what I am.” My Boy aims for the sounds of the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter era as a means of carving out how these male relationships make Marlon Williams who he is. He’s reaching for his roots, sonically and lyrically. It’s a big idea, but Williams’s gentle tone and softened arrangements make it feel low concept.
The record is full of male figures, some more developed than others. There’s the protective instinct towards a man on “My Boy,” a father-figure on “My Heart the Wormhole,” the “prince” figure of celebrity on “Princes Walk.” Williams covers Barry Gibb’s “Promises” with a sense of reverence and delicacy, like he’s using one man’s words to say what he can’t. Even his relationships with women are depicted through the lens of masculinity: “Turn on me baby/I’m gonna turn on you/Soft boys make the grade.”
Some of these vignettes are nuanced depictions of male relationships. There’s a bittersweet respect in Williams’s delivery of the line “I’m still a boy and you’re still the king” towards a paternal figure. Others are hazy and imprecise. “River Rival” speaks in platitudes: “I can see a light around you/Empty spaces will confine you.”
My Boy is not a strictly thematic album, and some of its best moments are when it’s in a full state of abandon. “Don’t Go Back” would sound at home on Saturday Night Fever, a suggestive disco track with a light touch. “Thinking of Nina” has some of the best one-liners on the album (“When you playin with hearts than you playin with shame”). As a songwriter, Marlon Williams clearly has range, from the sparse writing of “Easy Does It” to “Thinking of Nina’s” heartbreak wisdom. The whole album just feels loose: a sparse thematic cohesion, gentle crate-digging into the sounds of the ‘70s mainstream, guitar and synth lines that feel like they’re floating in air. Its best moments are faithful odes to the singer’s influential male figures, and its worst moments are passive enough to be forgivable.
On the album cover, Williams is gazing up at the sky like he’s watching a butterfly float in the trees. I wonder how this album would’ve sounded with a bolder approach to observing the male relationships that “make him what he is.” Less Laurel Canyon daydreaming and more active introspection. Maybe for the next album, he’ll be back there, digging the hole.
My Boy is out tomorrow.