An album is more than just a collection of songs; it is a window into where an artist is, mentally, physically and often more telling, logistically, at the point of recording. 2014’s compact and bijou five track The Ghost of Corelli found our hero leading a three piece band and wielding a sound very much dominated by big guitars, dynamic and punchy bass lines and driving back beats. It was effective, dramatic and to the point. And whilst such a rock and roll pulse has always beaten at the heart of his music, as it beats at the heart of almost every classic record irrespective of genre, in some ways it felt like a departure from the sound I associate with David Marx.
But A Thousand Mandolins is all about texture rather than testosterone, subtlety and suppleness rather than shock and awe, layered hues coloured by more instruments doing less work rather than fewer vivid and vibrant musical colours being painted boldly and to more dramatic effect. Not that there isn’t drama to be found here, it is just of a richer, more effective and better conceived nature, a Robert Altman to the previous release’s Martin Scorsese perhaps.
And even before you delve into the music, the Marxian cultural reference machine is fine tuned and offering tantalising hints, dropping names such as Caravaggio, Candide and the Venus de Milo, balancing tears and murder, beckoning silence and disavowing miracles. Even the title of the album speaks of points of reference that go beyond most modern artists and invokes Leonard Cohen’s poeticism or a more global Tom Waits vision.
If two songs define the limits of the album it is the back-to-back tracks Merry-Go-Round and Halfway Between Tears and Murder. The former built of a jaunty swagger, buoyant banjos and a light groove, the latter a dark, slow-building brooding song forged more of atmosphere and anticipation than the music that defines its structure.
But obviously this isn’t just a collection of musical stops along an arbitrary line drawn between the light and shade of those two songs; it takes some interesting and intriguing detours as well. She’s Just Not That Kind of Girl is an alternative take on that musical period when The Beatles were still a straight (-ish) pop band but where wandering, drugs in hand, towards more psychedelic landscapes and Face Down Like The Huddled Suicides is Elvis Costello getting all philosophical. Short, snappy and…well, deep! Country vibes ooze from Let The Silence Prevail, drums shuffle, organs swell (steady!) and guitars groove, in an underground, East Nashville, outlaw bar band sort of way with not a rhinestone in sight, thankfully.
So what has changed to make this album so different to the last? Well, The Ghost of Corelli was made against a backdrop of the logistical pitfalls of keeping a regular band on the road and possibly delivering sets that pandered, whether consciously or not, to the denizens of the gigging circuit. David’s recent live hiatus has relieved him of such considerations and he has returned to a state of freedom where instead of him making an album in search of an audience he has instead made the album that comes from a more natural place. Now the audience can come to him. Or not, but that isn’t the point. Not so much a creative rebirth, just an artist remembering that the ball was always in his court.