When it comes down to it, I’m not sure that Steve Marion is really trying to make a great album. I think he’s trying to make the best Delicate Steve album he can. And, if there’s nothing else to say about Positive Force, it’s at least clear that he’s succeeded in doing exactly that.
Marion’s guitar and synth bedroom pop project continues to be immediately enjoyable, simply because he never seems to be reaching for something that’s outside of his grasp. He makes mostly instrumental guitar grooves set against a gently composed backdrop of keyboard flourishes and drum rhythms. Any vocals present are a compositional baubles instead of melody-driving lyrics. When I interviewed Marion a couple years ago after the release of Wondervisions, his debut album, he told me, “It wasn’t really a conscious choice to make it an instrumental album, it was just like, ‘What are all the things I can do in my room to complete this album?’ And singing wasn’t one of them.”
So Marion doesn’t sing, but he also never tries to punch the listener in the face with grandiosity, bombastic dynamics, soul-less virtuosity, or excessive experimentation — all of which can easily serve as a compensation mechanism for lesser acts. He simply lets his soaring guitar lines bubble and roam freely.
In almost every capacity, Positive Force is an improvement over its predecessor. Most strikingly, it sounds more mature and professional. Since this effort was produced in the same home-recording environment as Wondervisions, Marion has clearly picked up some production tricks in the intervening months, and his new collection of songs shimmer with a confident glow. While Wondervisions had spunk and energy to spare, it was plagued with the occasional “Hey everyone, I’m recording this at home” moment, such as the loose instrument cable buzz that attempted to serve as a soundscape on “Source ((Connection))” or the almost aggressively trebley mixes on songs like “Sugar Splash.”
Positive Force’s opener, “Ramona Reborn,” serves as an effective bridge from that sound, with slide guitar melodies conspicuously reminiscent of that album’s watershed track, “Butterfly.” But as the record blossoms, it’s clear that Marion has crafted a sonic step forward with better mixes, more satisfying arrangements, and a more thoughtful take on his music. Tracks like “Wally Wilder” and “Love” make the most out of Delicate Steve’s trademark front-and-center, pitch-shifted guitar lines, with lush arrangements that leave them sounding inspiring where Wondervision’s mix often left them sounding harsh and piercing. “Two Lovers” makes the most out of the R&B grooves I always suspected Marion was capable of after hearing the synth lines on his debut’s title track. “Afria Talks to You” breaks new ground with a 90s pop-soul groove. Most effectively, the minor-key melody and island rhythm of “Tallest Heights” accomplishes the difficult task of being equal parts wistfully haunting and breezily engaging.
But I’ll tell you what Positive Force doesn’t have. It doesn’t have a viscerally infectious groove to rival “Wondervisions.” It doesn’t have the kind of innocent immediacy of “The Ballad of Speck and Pebble.” And, no matter how hard it might try, it doesn’t have an absolutely remarkable barn-burner like we heard with “Butterfly.” There are also a couple missteps here, such as “Touch,” a noisy jumble of mangled moans and ambient keys that fails to get off the ground. On a few other tracks, like “Big Time Receiver” and “Luna,” Marion sounds like he fumbles for an interlude or two, but thankfully doesn’t allow his songs to be completely derailed by an idea that fails to land.
Taken as an average of the sum of its parts, this record has improved on Delicate Steve’s debut in leaps and bounds. But I’m afraid the consistent and mature Positive Force is always going to be eclipsed by the hiccupy, jerky Wondervisions, not in quality but in impact. It’s clear from listening to his work that Marion isn’t trying to blow our minds, and he may not even necessarily be consciously trying to top himself. He’s simply having fun. In fact, Delicate Steve’s music has always sounded to me like it’s a little bit more fun to play than it is to listen to. If you’re a sampling musician looking for some new instrumental material to mangle, or if you’re an aspiring slide guitarist looking for some inspiration to sit in your bedroom and noodle around, this record is essential. For most, though, it’s going to be an exercise in managing expectations and accepting the work for what it is: a laid-back riff cruise.