This is the song that should win this year's Silver Scrollby James Belfield
The annual prize for the New Zealand song of the year is upon us. Listener music critic James Belfield thinks the judges have only one choice.
And that’s why, when they announce the 2018 Silver Scroll for the year’s best songwriting at a bash at Auckland’s Spark Arena on October 4, they’ll surely announce the winner as Marlon Williams for his break-up ballad Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore.
Part of me doesn’t want this utterly heartbroken song to win. Part of me wants the soulful, sun-worshipping, pagan prog funk of Troy Kingi’s Aztechknowledgey, or the tender trundling melody of Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s Hunnybee, or the fuzzy, grungy guitars and gleeful harmonies of the Beths’ Future Me Hates Me, or the f--- you break-up pop of Chelsea Jade’s Laugh It Off to show that bold, uplifting songs hold this world together.
But they don’t. Those other shortlisted songs are good – and in the case of the Beths, maybe even great. However, Williams has condensed his own failed relationship into a song that is honest and soft-hearted enough to be recognisable to us all, and yet stirring enough to show that lost love really can be the end of the world.
There’s artistic bravery behind his honesty. The duet was part of an outpouring of songwriting following the end of a 10-year relationship with fellow singer-songwriter Aldous Harding. But rather than making Make Way For Love an obvious break-up album of anger, regret and recrimination, he asked Harding back into the studio as a way to give their relationship one final artistic flourish.
It’s telling that on Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore Harding gets the first word, taunting Williams that it’s now “impossible to claim your reward”, before he’s able to stumble into an admission of confusion and “emotions I can barely afford to contain”, then a veiled jibe that “you’re the same, you hide away from anything that turns you on”.
Although these lyrics are clearly more oblique than, say, Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody That I Used to Know, the exes’ jousting leads us to a chorus hook that is its equal. Their voices soar and writhe around each other as they insist that their wrecked relationship isn’t just a personal fracture, it’s the product of a world where nobody – not one of us – can truly feel love any more.
It’s only in the final minute and a half that the self-absorption of their break-up reveals itself to be Williams’ alone as the song tumbles from its string-laden crescendo into his wistful, lonesome wonderings of, “What am I going to do when you’re in trouble and you don’t call out for me? What am I going to do when I can see that you’ve been crying and you don’t want no help from me? Baby, I can’t separate us out anymore.”
Williams’ outstanding, choir-trained voice has carried albums for more than a decade, since his days with the Unfaithful Ways and alt-country collaborations with Delaney Davidson. But Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore is the moment when his songwriting caught up with his talented delivery.
Yes, it took a break-up to spike his emotions, and yes, it took the extraordinary decision to create a duet with Harding to provide a unique setting for his lyrics, but the result is the sort of song that achieves real sadness – and real greatness.
The 2018 Silver Scrolls, Spark Arena, October 4, will be live-streamed on the RNZ website.
This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.
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