The place you never get to. With Marathon, his 13th release, Darden Smith evocatively captures the enduring allure in pursuing answers we never find. Inspired by the stark, spacious mood of the American West, Marathon is the most exceptional work to date in the Austin-based musician’s 25-year career.
“For me, Marathon is a place of mind,” Smith says. “Somewhere I wanted to go, and a place I could never reach. The desert reminds me of that: It’s barren, and it’s harsh. You’re alone out there. It’s daunting – but I’m drawn to it.” The elegant sweep of Marathon indeed evokes images of a foreboding vista, from the opening of “Sierra Diablo” to the aptly titled “75 Miles of Nothing.” And while it readily recalls the desolate landscape of West Texas, Marathon is, ultimately, about the landscape within.
From its fluid acoustic guitar base and soaring pedal steel to its delicate piano interludes, Marathon broadly embodies the intimidating – and intimate – beauty of life. “Marathon is more open, more organic than anything I’ve done in a very long time,” Smith says of the album, named for the remote Texas town near the bend of the Rio Grande. “I wanted it to be really spacious, very acoustic-based, and to try and pull in sonically what West Texas is to me visually.”
The 15-track collection may reprise familiar themes of introspection and spirituality for Smith, but similarities to his previous 11 albums end there. Combining a sophisticated austerity with philosophical heft, Marathon undoubtedly reflects a veteran songwriter in transition, a truth-seeker willing to lay bare the hardships of scrutinizing his place in the modern world. Smith admits: “I couldn’t have written these songs 20 years ago.”
Smith didn’t set out to write a richly contemplative album like Marathon. After composing a performance work for the Austin Symphony Orchestra in 1999, Smith, known primarily as a singer-songwriter, wanted to challenge himself with another large symphony or theatre piece. He tinkered with different approaches until settling in 2003 on an idea for a song cycle, a set of songs that could later integrate a series of monologues for the stage.
A lifelong Texas native with an affinity for its West, Smith turned for inspiration to the work of James Evans, the renowned Marathon photographer. He found further “visual touchstones” in road trips to the Big Bend region and in his Austin studio, littered with rocks, photographs, paintings and stacks of books on art and history. Combined with his burgeoning interests in Buddhism, meditation and mythology – at a time when he was also assessing his personal life and creative direction – it made for a potent combination.
“The perfect cocktail,” Smith calls it. “I was dark. Searching. And open to something new.”
A flurry of songwriting followed. Sequestered in his studio during a weeklong stretch early in 2004, he wrote five songs, including three mainstays of Marathon that all, astonishingly, came together in the same day: “Mortal Coil,” “Truth of the Rooster” and “Escalator.” Two other songs written during that bender, “Field of Crows” and “All That I Wanted” were subsequently shifted to his 2005 release Field of Crows. It was when he wrote “Sierra Diablo” several months later in Sante Fe that Smith realized the singular thread winding through his recent work.
“So much of Marathon is about letting go, about not being in control of the writing, of the direction,” he says. “A lot of it probably came from my subconscious. Songs like ‘Mortal Coil’ and ‘Sierra Diablo’ – I have no idea where they came from. And it was only later that I could look back at them and say, “Oh, now that was interesting.’”
Smith’s music has long defied easy classification, and some – even Smith himself – would be uncertain whether to call Marathon a return to roots or a leap ahead. “I think it is a divergence, and a circling back, and a moving forward into something new,” he says. “It’s certainly the most thematic record I’ve done.” It is the sustained depth of the entire album, however, that sets Marathon apart from his previous work. From “That Water” to “No One Gets Out of Here,” every track is steeped in Smith’s search for meaning. “I think I wanted to find answers,” Smith says. “And I didn’t even know what the question was.”
In “That Water,” Smith forces himself to consider, and appreciate, his darkest parts that would be easier to overlook. “Bull By The Horns,” written on a dismal morning alone in a Dallas hotel room, is a rallying cry to confront life on realistic terms (“Not a pretty thought sometimes,” he says). When he later saw an archive photograph of an imposing bull in Big Bend, he knew he’d found the singular image for the album cover. “I’d heard that phrase – ‘Grab the bull by the horns’ – all my life, but somehow in writing that song it took on a whole new meaning,” he says. “It’s about growing older, looking at the passing time and dealing with what’s in front of you.”
Smith wrote the songs for Marathon over three and a half years – “There’s a reason it isn’t called ‘Sprint,’” he’s fond of saying – while concurrently working on other albums and projects. And even as his attention was diverted elsewhere, his passion remained fixed on nurturing Marathon, which “slowly unfolded with a mind of its own.” A monologue script was developed, and in 2008, Smith melded his dramatic song cycle into a series of rehearsals and live workshop performances with a band in Austin.
Those two weeks onstage together yielded the free-flowing arrangements of the studio sessions that immediately followed. The album’s 11 main tracks were recorded over three days with core musicians from Smith’s previous albums: Michael Ramos (keyboards, accordion, trumpet), who co-produced Marathon with Smith; Roscoe Beck (bass); and Mike Hardwick (pedal and lap steel, electric guitar). David Murray (electric guitar), J.J. Johnson (drums) and Ephraim Owens (trumpet) also joined the studio sessions with Smith, who sang vocals and played acoustic guitar and piano.
The distinct, expansive style that resulted is precisely what Smith envisioned from the start. “I had a really defined sound in my head,” Smith says. “I wanted it to be a kind of return to the way I made records when I was first starting out – really simple arrangements based around the guitar.” He also wanted “to make it flow, without stop, through all of the tracks, more like a soundtrack.” For that, Smith composed instrumental piano pieces woven between the main songs, punctuated occasionally by the rumble of a far-off train.
Marathon is Smith’s second release from his own label, Darden Music. During his extended work on Marathon, Smith released on Dualtone Music Group a stylistic trilogy of lauded studio albums: Sunflower (2002), which included the hit “After All This Time,” Circo (2004) and Field of Crows (2005). In 2007 Smith issued Ojo, a limited-edition recording from a series of live concerts in New Mexico. His first release on Darden Music, After All This Time, followed in 2009; the 16-song compilation drew favorite cuts from every one of his 10 critically acclaimed studio albums since 1986.
Even now, nearly a decade after it started, Smith’s Marathon concept continues to evolve. The Continental Club in Austin played host in the summer of 2010 to a new series of rehearsals with a full band, and Smith hopes to one day expand his vision of the dramatic song cycle into a traveling road performance for the stage. “I always ‘saw’ Marathon as much as I ‘heard’ it,” Smith says. “The record is merely the first step.” Even now, Smith is working on a new stage concept to accompany the Marathon experience.
In the meantime, the philosophical bent of Marathon remains at the vanguard for Smith, even as he looks ahead to other projects. “It’s in the spirit in everything I do,” he says. “Introspection, searching, going deep – all of the things that fascinate me with songwriting. And there’s no end in sight.” After all, he adds, “Marathon is the place you never get to.”
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