Dark British rock songwriter Mike Marlin seems to be building a career out of gigs like supporting Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler of the Jam on UK tour. But Marlin may well be the main attraction at shows like those: the old rake writes good songs. As he tells it, he cut his teeth in the early 80s, inspired by Siouxsie & the Banshees and the Cure, but it wasn’t until the end of the past decade that he dedicated himself exclusively to music. It’s a good thing he did: his new album, Grand Reveal is streaming at his Bandcamp page as is last year’s release, Man on the Ground. You can also grab a free download of the single The Murderer, a gorgeously orchestrated, bitterly understated lament for a dissolute life, from his Soundcloud page.
Marlin turns out to be less new wave than you might expect. Sometimes he goes in a noir cabaret direction, other times completely goth, occasionally looking back to early 70s glam – it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine these songs being fully realized versions of demos he made back in the 80s. His raspy baritone is strong, his worldview cynical and world-weary, his songs catchy and anthemic.”I’m older than I look, younger than I feel,” he snarls on the title track, a slinky, doomed cabaret anthem.
The new album’s best song is the opener, Skull Behind the Skin, building from creepy music-box electric piano to a searing chorus fueled by Johnny Marr-style guitar. Marlin’s deadpan croon and allusive lyrics here could be friendly encouragement to hang out and jam, but turn out to have somewhat different implications.
The most typically new wave track is War to Begin, a study in maintaining a tense, anxious mood, bass rising over a hypnotic, insistent guitar pulse. The poppiest are Forgive Me Yet, with its lively brass section, and Girl on the Roof, which could be Ian Hunter in blithely seductive mode. A couple other ballads bring to mind Nick Cave: Amazing building to a big crescendo, Giving It All Away broodingly contemplating the end. “I hear the saxophone on Baker Street on endless repeat, and I don’t mind, and I’ll hear it again,” Marlin accepts with unexpected grace.
“The neighbor’s cat comes into the garden to hunt birds; he never catches them or hurts them, which is more than I can say about you,” Marlin intones on the nonchalantly menacing More Than I Can Say. It wouldn’t be out of place in the Jon DeRosa catalog. Doesn’t Care is catchy and surprisingly wry; the album’s most theatrical song is To the Grave, a diptych that ends the album on an unexpectedly sympathetic if distantly angst-riddled note. An album like this raises the question of how many other Mike Marlins there might be out there who could be sitting on a similarly enticing collection of good songs from back in the day.