With This Is Steve, Delicate Steve proves this is where he belongs
Steve Marion would like you to know, first and foremost, that he’s a human being. That’s why the New Jersey-bred guitar maestro’s given name is right there in the moniker of his primary musical project—Delicate Steve is both the four-piece live band Marion fronts and the superhero alias he assumes for his one-man recording output—and in the title of his long-in-the-works third LP.
“Making it feel very human is a big part of what I want to do,” he says. “I feel like there’s a lot of music now that is so far away from that; we’re so overly sensitized that we’re desensitized to what people are doing. I hope there’s a point at which we come back around to records being called, like, This Is Elvis or The Voice Of Miriam Makeba or Belafonte Sings Calypso. I want people to listen to this record and think of me.”
There’s an emphatic, authoritative clarity to that title that befits the album’s crisp, confident concision: 10 short, sharp instrumentals in 29 minutes that nod to a wide array of styles (power pop, hard rock, reggae, country, lackadaisical folk/blues, ambient gospel) without sacrificing the sonic signature of Marion’s distinctive guitar work and ear-candy melodicism. But the path to its existence wasn’t entirely simple or straightforward. After establishing a fascinating (wordless) voice with the woozy, dreamy instrumental psych pop of 2011’s Wondervisions and 2012’s Positive Force, Marion had visions of a grand next act: a “mindblowing” album featuring “Michael Jackson-level pop songs” with guest vocalists including David Byrne, Devendra Banhart and Win Butler. Recording commenced in January 2013, but the reality of his vision wasn’t quite panning out. So he scrapped the project midway through and went back to square one.
The next several years involved plenty of touring (sharing stages with Tame Impala, tUnE-yArDs, Cass McCombs, Mac DeMarco and Built To Spill, among others), studio collaborations (with Paul Simon, Yeasayer, Sondre Lerche, Zach Hill and Red Baraat) and the formation and Merge Records debut of a new band, Saint Rich, with longtime buddy Christian Peslak—but no new Delicate tunes. Eventually, with the collaboration-bug out of his system for the time being, having already used up the budget intended for the third Delicate Steve album and recognizing that he functioned best within the limitations imposed by clear deadlines and creative constraints, Marion decamped to a friend’s Catskills studio compound in the summer of 2015, where he knocked out This Is Steve solo, from scratch, in a mere 11 days.
The first Delicate Steve record designed with the idea of a live band in mind, This abandons some of the quirkier sounds of its predecessors (pitchshifting, acoustic/electronic patchwork percussion) in favor of mostly straightforward rock instrumentation. “Basically, I wanted to confuse my brain a little bit,” he says. Concepts came and went—the idea to making a quick, “Ramones-style” record was mostly jettisoned, though the impulse lingers in the relative punchiness of the album’s first half—and individual tracks suggested musical reference points that became “my little spirit animals” for the song. JJ Cale, for instance, guided laid-back, midtempo meander “Tomorrow.” The sparse “Swimming” vibes with Sly Stone; opener “Animals” has “a slight Jimi Hendrix feel,” “Cartoon Rock” was “ZZ Top meets Devo meets Deerhoof,” and “Winners” was rather specifically inspired by a combination of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch Of Grey,” Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic” and Ween.
Regardless of whether listeners pick up on those particular resonances, or divine their own, the decisive statement on the spine remains the final, undeniable word. So let’s welcome 2017: the Year of Steve.
“In my head it’s more of a summer record, but what I’m excited about is putting in a bunch of work over the winter months so that everyone will be jamming this thing in the summer,” he says. “That’s my goal.”
—K. Ross Hoffman