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Old 05-11-2022, 07:45 PM   #5 (permalink)
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The problem with having a number one album is (anyone?) you have to follow it up. Not just musically but commercially. Despite the fact that Marillion just happened to catch the zeitgeist at the right time with Misplaced Childhood, despite the fact that nobody - certainly not me - could have predicted it would have the success it had, try telling the record label that. EMI were in some sort of denial, a fantasy land where they suddenly saw all the money and time they had invested in this prog rock band come back to them; hit singles, number one album, sellout tours: fuck yeah! THIS was why they had got into the business, not to push dowdy acoustic solo albums by has-beens that were likely to shift less than a few thousand units. Give them Gold, give them Platinum! Give them glory and prestige and chart placings, but above all give them financial returns the like of which had never been ....

Yeah. It was never going to happen. Not in anyone's wildest dreams. The band knew it, the producers knew it, hell, probably the sound engineers and the lady who brought in the tea and cakes knew it. You have an album like that once in your career, unless you're extremely lucky or a real sell-out. Steve Rothery had said at the time of writing that “EMI wanted another “Kayleigh”, but I knew it was never going to happen. Hell, the first time had been an accident!” And so it had. Explaining to his wife how he composed songs on his guitar, Rothery had hit upon the main riff for the single that would almost take them to number one, and while he was and is a great guitarist and songwriter, he knew in his heart of hearts that that kind of inspiration only really ever strikes once. He's written some phenomenal songs, certainly, but never anything again that was so commercially attractive to the non-Marillion audience. And he never will.

Add to this the fact that Fish was going through his own personal crisis, both with his new wife and with life on the road and battling his addictions (unsuccessfully, and he was well aware of that) and considering a departure from the band, and you can see why the magic that surrounded and suffused the recording of the previous album was going to be markedly absent from this one. Straining relationships, massive pressure from EMI to come up with basically Misplaced Childhood II, differences over how the music was to be written and far too many wild and drunken, drug-fuelled nights all meant that the chances of this new album even getting finished, never mind hitting the top of the charts again, a mere two years later, were remote to say the least.

Clutching at Straws (1987)

It's an appropriate title in several ways. Firstly of course, the band dynamic was such that there was almost two camps developing, one with Fish in it and one with everyone else. Fish was against the new manager who had been hired and wanted to dispense with his services, but the boys refused, thereby turning a loaded gun back on the frontman himself and leaving him staring down the barrel of an irreversible decision. Clutching at straws, indeed. The idea of recapturing the spirit of (a) Misplaced Childhood () for the new album was similarly desperate, and of course the whole thing revolved around an alcoholic, Fish thinly disguised, where straws poking out of his current drink would no doubt give him the feeling he was sinking, or as one of the tracks had it, going under.

They did try though. Misplaced Childhood had been such a success that it was almost a foregone conclusion that the new album would again be a concept. I love Clutching At Straws, but I think the reasoning here is flawed. Marillion had come out with a concept album in a time when such things were frowned upon, as I noted in the previous review, and while it had undoubtedly been wildly successful, the idea of the new album being a concept too was I think pushing it. I can't think of many bands who released concept album after concept album; I think it's an event when a band does release one, and after that it should be more or less back to basics for the next album, otherwise you risk either cheapening the original idea or trying to ride its coattails to another unlikely success. (Another summit conference, another breakfast time divorce?)

But the decision was made, and against major deadlines the band sat down to write, though it came slowly. In the end, they did manage another top ten hit single and the album went to number two (second comes right after first!) so they certainly did not write a flop, commercially or stylistically. In fact, if any album were to be Fish's swan song, then they could not have written a better epitaph.

In a move that would become something of a trademark after Fish had departed, the album opens low and muted, with the sounds very quiet and slowly swelling , though not as much as they would on later albums like Seasons End and Holidays in Eden, and to an extent, Afraid of Sunlight. We're introduced to Torch, the central figure in the concept. He's a failed writer, musician and poet, who drowns his sorrows in alcohol and meaningless sex, having left his wife and children behind him, as well as his responsibilities. “Hotel Hobbies” is a short song, opening with a low synth, quietly strummed guitar and a descending keyboard line that pays brief homage to Floyd on the opening bars of “Shine on You Crazy Diamond”, then a rippling synthy vibes line from Kelly and a muted vocal from Fish, before percussion from Mosley and Rothery punch through and the vocal gets sharper, more angry as Torch tries to write. ”The only sign of life is the ticking of the pen” he snarls ”Introducing characters to memory like old friends/ Frantic as a cardiograph/ Scratching out the lines”.

Note: you're probably going to notice more references to the lyrics in this album than I have up to now, or possibly will again. This is because I consider CAS to be Fish's finest moment lyrically, possibly because the subject matter was so close to his heart, and at times you really can hear his own voice and experience in the lines. It's therefore his most personal album, and considering that he was already entertaining thoughts of leaving, he may have, consciously or unconsciously, gone to great lengths to put as much of himself into this final effort than he had on previous albums, which despite their greatness never felt as personal as this one does. In many ways, I feel like this is Fish, looking in a mirror and not liking what he sees, as in the spoken part of “Torch Song” later, when he listens but doesn't listen to his doctor's advice, and also it's him staring out of the music and the lines of lyrics at us, with his bleary eyes and slurred voice, a shaking finger pointing and saying “This could be you!” He could also, of course, be saying this to himself, and making a further and almost undeniable case for his expedited departure before the hedonistic lifestyle coupled with his own problems dragged him under for the last time.

Nowhere does this come through more powerfully than in his descriptions of the boardwalk as we move into “Warm Wet Circles”, with a perfect segue from the previous track on yet another wonderfully evocative line in ”When the sunlight flares/ Through a curtain's tear/ Shuffling its beams as if in nervous anticipation/ Of another day”. With a very “Script” guitar line leading it, the metaphors just pile up here: ”On the promenade” sings Fish, ”Where drunks propose to/ Lonely arcade mannequins” - does any other phrase sum up more succinctly and, at once pathetic and sympathetic, the idea of the hopeless, homeless, futureless people who haunt the city's darker corners and hide from the light, as in the best of Waits's lyrics?

I could go on for pages about the lyric just in this song: ”A honeymoon gambled on a ricochet/ She's staring at the brochures/ At the holidays” and the last farewell from two young, probably underage lovers as ”She faithfully traces his name/ With quick thin fingers/ Through the tears of condensation/ That'll cry through the night/ As the glancing headlights of the last bus/ Kiss adolescence goodbye.” I love, too, how Fish uses the title to mean so many different things: ”A mother's kiss on your first broken heart/ A bullet-hole in Central Park” and of course the rings left behind by the glasses on the bar, as well as more, um, sexual interpretations of the word. But let's leave the lyric for now and concentrate on the music, which is driven by a dour and then lighter piano from Mark Kelly, allied to the breezy guitar of Rothery, giving the song a somehow lighter feel than is betrayed by the lyric. There's a sense again of “Fugazi” in the piano here, harder but it's still there.

Great solo from Steve and then Fish's vocal becomes accordingly harsher and more bitter as the adolescent girl surrenders her virginity in the dark - ”Givin' it all away/ Before it's too late” and as the whole thing shudders to a halt on Kelly's piano it again merges seamlessly with the next song, led in by Fish singing in what sounds like a distant echo ”It was a wedding ring/ Destined to be found in a cheap hotel/ Lost in a kitchen sink/ Or thrown in a wishing well” and then taken in on a sublime little passage from Rothery before he changes up into a more upbeat, lighter tone and Kelly's piano joins him, Trewavas's dependable bass muttering away in the background, and Fish's lyric gets a little more political as he sings ”Paranoia roams where the shadows reign” and the chorus tells us a lot about Fish the man in reality. ”If you ask me” he admits ”How do I feel inside/ I could honestly tell you/ We've been taken on a very long ride/ And if my owners let me have/ Some free time some day/ With all good intentions/ I would probably run away.” Not hard to see that his “owners” would be seen as EMI, or even the band themselves, and that at its heart this song is a plea for release, for resolution, for breathing space and ultimately, as he says in the final line above, for escape.

It expectedly gets very harsh and angry in the closing section as, against pounding percussion and whirling piano he roars ”If some kind soul could please pick up my tab/ And while they're at it/ If they could pick up my broken heart” and the song then ends on a powerful repeat of the title of the previous song, eventually ending on female vocals from Tessa Niles, who has worked with such luminaries as Tina Turner, Gary Numan, Jaki Graham and ABC. The addition of the female vox is interesting, as it puts a very slight slant on the idea, but I'm not totally sure it works. Maybe it's meant to be the lamenting voice of the basically abandoned wife, I don't know. Odd.

Here's where I have something of a quandary. Being an old fart, I bought this album when it was new and on vinyl, and it did not have (nor will it ever have: the reissue on vinyl is the same) this next track. I only got to hear it as a B-side of a twelve-inch single (ask your parents or some old guy on the street) but apparently it is part of the story. It was included on the CD and it does fit in overall very well into the narrative. So, although I'm used to going from “That Time of the Night” right into “Just for the Record”, I'm going to break with tradition and feature this song, as I think it deserves to be included. “Going Under” begins on spacey, slow jangly guitar and dark brooding synth, and is the obvious thoughts of Torch/Fish as he contemplates what alcoholism is doing to him, the toll it is taking on his body, his mind and his soul. The lyric, for once, and considering the subject, is in fact one I consider one of the weakest, with lines like ”I ain't got no excuse/ And that's really the news/ Got nothing to say/ But it's my way, always my way/ Seem to be running away so often”, but it's really more the swirling, mesmerising, almost hypnotic nature of the music and the somewhat echoing fade of Fish's voice that really nails the song for me. You definitely get the idea of someone staring over a precipice, trying to hang on, or taking another breath before being dragged below the waves, and wondering if they'll even resurface. There's a lot of despair, fatalism and even a sense of loss and surrender in the song, especially when he asks at the end ”Am I so crazy?”

If that was Torch's long dark night of the soul, so to speak, he seems to face the next day with gleeful abandon and revel in his addiction, as “Just for the Record” is an exercise in denial. A much more uptempo, upbeat song with squealing synth and tripping percussion, the opening line really setting the tone: ”Many's the time I been thinking/ About changing my ways/ But when it comes right down to it/ It's the same drunken haze.” At this point it would seem Torch has realised he is never going to kick this addiction, knows it's destroying him but is equally aware (or believes at any rate) that he can do nothing to kick it and so decides to wallow in his crapulence, to quote Mister Burns. He makes many excuses for what he does - ”Just a revolutionary with a pseudonym/ Just a bar romancer on my final fling/ Just another writer paying off my dues/ Just finding inspiration, well, that's my excuse” - but they are all excuses, and he knows this.

There's a great line in the middle eighth, when he snarls ”Too late! I've fallen too far!/ I'm in two minds and both of them are out of it at the bar!” He realises his problem lies in the fact that ”I got no discipline/ Got no self-control” and if Fish were ever speaking in the voice of Torch on this album, it's here, and it's at his most honest and naked. Nevertheless, the song ends with the grinning claim ”Just for the record/ I can stop any day!” The cry of the alcoholic the world over.

The big epic is “White Russian”, and here Fish's lyrics turn back to the poliical bent we saw on Fugazi and in parts of Misplaced Childhood, particularly on the “Threshold” section of “Blind Curve”, as he ponders and worries about the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe, something he has seen first hand when recording and touring. With a cold wind blowing in (to blow away the cobwebs clinging to Torch's brain after “Just for the Record”?) and a wailing guitar, Fish mutters “Where do we go from here?” which will become the motif, perhaps not even for just the song (though it certainly is) or even for the remainder of the album, or even for Torch's future, but for the future of the man writing these lyrics as he agonises over where his own career, and life, is headed.

The rage against anti-semitism could not be plainer from the opening lines - ”They're burning down the synagogues/ Uzis on a street corner” with the plaintive cry of ”Where do we go from here?” permeating every verse and in fact becoming the chorus, such as it is. The music is angry and harsh to match Fish's vocals, but calms down in the middle with a very “Fugazi”-like soft piano from Mark Kelly as Fish revisits almost some of the lyric from that song when he sings ”We buy fresh bagels from the corner store/ Where swastikas are spat from aerosols”, the mood, though still angry, perhaps a little resigned now, a little tired, the music reflecting this until it swells again as Fish gets his second wind and begins singing about gulags and red tape, and unless he's just railing in general against the injustices in the world I'm not entirely sure what he's getting at here, but I get even more confused when the closing tag line is used.

Cleverly he asks ”Are we sitting on a barbed-wire fence?” which really gives the impression of staring across into No-Man's Land, deploring the slaughter but unwilling to actually get up off your arse and do anything about it, then he uses that tagline: ”Racing the clouds home”. Maybe he means running to try to outdistance the terror and horror that is to come down upon us all, or maybe it's a metaphor for a pointless exercise - running to stand still? I honestly don't know, but it brings the whole thing to a powerful close and his warning ”You can shut your eyes/ You can hide away/ It's gonna come back another day” is telling in the extreme, and when taken out of context and used for his own situation works just as well. You can get drunk, high or both, but when you sober up or come down you still have to face the world around you. Just to underline the motif then, Kelly finishes off the song with single-note runs on the piano that traces the phrase and stops midway, a clear indication if ever there was one that nobody in Marillion had really any idea where they were going from here.
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