“In a time where nothing makes sense, or when everyone is trying to make sense of everything, even the right idea might not make perfect sense to everybody at that moment.”
Steve Marion, the songwriter, guitarist, and producer who has made four studio records of primarily word-less, guitar-first music as Delicate Steve, is talking about the bifurcated and reactionary culture of the moment. But by no coincidence he’s also describing musical moments that helped to inspire Till I Burn Up (Anti-, 2019) his forthcoming LP.
The album name comes from a line in Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters” where Steve misheard John’s actual phrase “Tit Alberta” as “Till I Burn Up.” But more than fodder for an album title, John’s Gris Gris, and records like it, informed a new frame-of-mind for an artist who has historically set out to make a predetermined statement with every recording.
“The idea of this young freak making Gris Gris in LA, and nobody knowing what to do with it in 1968… He gave me confidence to be a little more freaky and abstract instead of quirky and nicely-packaged like my last album was.” Steve goes on to cite early records by Iggy Pop and Dylan and The Band’s electric tour that were panned at the time and lauded in hindsight. “There is a confidence that comes with abandoning the idea of wanting to create something that everyone might like to check out.”
But all is not bifurcated, and we know two things can be true at once. The confidence necessary for Steve to make Till I Burn Up could also be self-inspired. Now nearly ten years into his career, Steve is a cult artist of his time who has been called to record with his heroes (Paul Simon, Kanye West) and contribute significantly to his contemporaries’ modern masterworks (Amen Dunes, Freedom), all the while recording and releasing his own critically hailed work and sharing the stage with Tame Impala, Mac DeMarco, Growlers and others.
The artist whose songwriting and playing has been marked through by transcendent moments of buoyancy and joy has created a pulsing and propulsive record in Till I Burn Up. He put up at a studio in Woodstock and found himself playing Freddie Mercury’s Oberheim synthesizer and his guitar plugged into Robbie Robertson’s Fender amp.
With the intent to turn away from the times, Steve managed instead to document the sound of this moment — the ever-undwinding feed that feeds the feedback loop of talking heads, twitter tick-ticking like a bomb, the timed drip- like morphine- of news breaking in our hands, the party before the shoe drops, our interior dialogue, all the contradictions…
A song called “Freedom” is underpinned by a grinding circular guitar line interrupted by what sounds like synthetic warning sirens. “Rat in the House”, “Rubberneck”, and “Madness” are blinkered dancefloor rippers suited for a bunker party. “Selfie of Man” recognizes the pervasive behavior and its result, as a literal portrait of our times. It moves along in marched lockstep, with inversely reflecting guitar lines. The album’s closer ‘Dream’ allows Steve and his listeners some free range. Until then, each song is self-contained and self-referential — an ouroboros within a greater ouroboros called Till I Burn Up.
There are turns on Till I Burn Up as dark as anything Delicate Steve has recorded, but not without reminders that a joy ride into an apocalypse is still a joy ride. Like the harrowing moment it documents, Till I Burn Up would not be true if not imbued by contradiction. True to form, this Delicate Steve record is a distillation.