We look back on a dazzling minimal classic.
When Marionette was released in 2005, it was something a bit different. Gone was the humor of his early records. Even the artwork, part Tim Burton and part psychedelic cabaret (designed by Wagon Repair's in-house artist, Frank Camping) evoked a sense of darkness. This signals what sort of record you're tucking into. Within the first 20 seconds, you are in the territory of what Jeremy Armitage described as "SH101 snake-charming techno with a genius melody."
There are technically three different versions of "Marionette." There is the cherished A-Side that sprawls out across 11 minutes of Hollywood-grade widescreen, accompanied by the equally high definition live edit on the flip. But there is also a reprise that came out on Jonson's 2010 Agents Of Time LP. Renamed "Marionette (The Beginning)," Jonson explained to XLR8R that this was the first version he made back in 2003 and the one he actually prefers. This one feels more DJ-friendly and understated. The instantly recognizable melody is still there, but the percussion is tougher and sits higher in the mix. The LP version tempers the drama while still giving you that dopamine rush.
Still, for my money, it doesn't get much better than the original. The song is built around a detuned arpeggio, for which there is even a full YouTube video dedicated to replicating. The strings that come in swell with such tension that the song feels tactile even on the dodgiest headphones. As one Discogs user put it, "the break near the 7th minute mark tells how deep the track is."
Listening to "Marionette" now, you might think this is dance music designed for a BBC retrospective with a full orchestra in Royal Albert Hall, but that would ignore its sincerity. After the progressive and trance era of the late '90s, dance music was weary of bigness and emotion. Melody and affect had become kitsch. The rise of minimal made sense in this context, as a reaction against the overblown superstar DJ era. Still, dance music has always sought ways of wringing tears from machines, and this is exactly what Jonson does here.
By now we've become a bit desensitized to this type of trick. Heard today, the detuned melancholy brings to mind other classics from this era, like Âme's "Rej" (Jonson's recent output on labels like Visionquest, not to mention a track with Âme, doubles down on this). But at the time, this was a track that was played out everywhere from Cocoon to Berghain. Maybe that's what's so appealing about it today. Scroll through the track's YouTube comments and you quickly get a sense of the range of support. Listening to Jonson's fabric 84, which includes a live version, it's hard not to feel like you're stumbling onto something sublime, especially when that arpeggio kicks in.