Back in 2007, an album called Vultures landed on this writer's doormat. While I've not been the most supportive of the whole UK singer/songwriter establishment this last decade - Officer Blunt of the British Cavalry can be held solely responsible for that - it was clearly obvious that its creator Paul Marshall had a lot more to offer than your average anodyne self-pitying Joe. The only concern was that in a sea of mediocrity it was never going to be easy overcoming the musical travesties so many of his peers had burdened the airwaves with and somehow forging a career as a credible artist. Then, silence...
Of course there were several rumours circulating around the disappearance of Mr Marshall, most notably that he'd signed a record deal with esteemed independent Bella Union and new material would be imminent. That he's chosen to return with a completely new identity, sound and indiscriminately more gut wrenching lyrics than one could possibly have dreamt of makes The Devil And I an even more intriguing body of work.
As with 2010's other incongruous alter ego Villagers, Marshall as Lone Wolf is a different kettle of fish altogether to what's gone before. Not so much an alter ego, Lone Wolf is more about a soul laid bare for all the world to hear. In some ways The Devil And I feels like three years hard labour being charismatically lifted off one person's heavily burdened shoulders; indeed one can almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from its creator as the record's opening gambit 'This Is War' kicks the album into life.
And what a starting point. While there's little left to the imagination as far as solo projects go, the whole arrangement here actually duplicates that of a six-piece band, and that's before we even get onto Marshall's evocative play on words. Sure, a lot of the credit has to go to Kristofer Jonson, better known for his work with Jeniferever, and one of Lone Wolf's partners in crime throughout the majority of the recording sessions for The Devil And I along with Duels' James Kenosha. However, when examining some of the lyrical observations that punctuate 'This Is War' Marshall quickly elevates himself to another level altogether. "I do what I can for her" he pleads at the song's outset, "I slaughtered a cow and I'm vegetarian" he insists, pleading for forgiveness. "I used my chemistry skills to make up every pill under the sun for her" he declares, before the cutting "She gave me every disease under the sun before she ran to another man" finally gives way to the realisation we're listening to a riposte from the embers of a dying relationship. 'You're Beautiful' this most definitely isn't.
Delving further into The Devil And I's darkest recesses, it's clear Marshall has an army of demons that need to be exercised. Recent single 'Keep Your Eyes On The Road' may sound all jovial and conjugated but beneath its playful veneer there's a sneering voice hissing "I lay staring at your innocent skin wondering how I fucked this up?" over the song's delirious crescendo. Likewise, 'Buried Beneath The Tiles' asks quite prophetically "I don't know how I sleep at night", its simple acoustic arrangement belying the sentiment contained within.
Where comparisons to Tom Waits, Nick Drake and Grizzly Bear are almost inevitable, one would not expect Spike Island 1989 to be a major source of inspiration for such an introverted artist. However, '15 Letters' claims Ian Brown and co.'s "Down, Down, Down, Down, D-Down, Down, Down" refrain from 'Fools Gold' as its own, substituting the word "Done" and burying it amidst asides like "She led me down the garden path and bled me dry" in the process. Musically occupying the same vantage points as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, '15 Letters' is undoubtedly the most obvious composition on The Devil And I in terms of mainstream potential, despite Marshall's less than efficacious put-downs.
Moving towards the back end of the record, the album's title track diversifies into two separate parts. The first takes shape as a sorrowful interlude, regaling images of an empty fairground in mid-winter while its second, and closing part to the record has an air of finis about it, exquisitely bringing The Devil And I as a whole to a close by way of a cascading drum rattle.
At no point does The Devil And I feel undernourished or over-produced. In fact, there's a knowing satisfaction about it from start to finish that suggests its creator's demons can be banished once and for all, along with any lingering doubts arising from his past existence as plain old Paul Marshall. As a collection of songs that probably started off as simple ideas, Marshall has learned from his past mistakes to create a record bursting with exuberance and guile, never letting up at any of its ten points of reference. While Becoming A Jackal undoubtedly set a new standard this year for the singer/songwriter, The Devil And I fully deserves to be held in the same high esteem.
A minor revelation.
8Dom Gourlay's Score