"Marillion's" fourth and final album with singer Fish - "Clutching at Straws", was released on June 22, 1987.
This is a concept album, similar to its predecessor "Misplaced Childhood", which we wrote about last week.
Musically, this album is not much different from the previous three albums, only the general atmosphere here is much more melancholy and dark. Another change compared to previous albums is the fact that despite the frictions and quarrels that began to arise between the band members during the recordings, their playing is much more professional, cohesive, and mature, and this is probably the added value of this album, which is on a par with the previous album "Misplaced Childhood", Some say even surpasses it by points.
Lyrically, the plot story focuses on the character of Torch, a 29-year-old unemployed singer with a not-so-simple life, who finds solace in alcohol to escape the sad reality in which he lives, a ruined marriage, a breakup, and a failed career. When Torch gets drunk he manages to write songs and "laments" about his life, but that doesn't help him get up and get out of the situation he is in. He always ends up drunk in bars or unconscious in hotel rooms, with no hope or regulation.
Fish has managed to transcend himself here and write the deepest words in his career, which are based in one way or another on his personal life. The Jester from the album "Script For A Jester’s Tear", the boy from "Misplaced Childhood" and now also Torch of the current album, are all characters that are reflected in Fish's complex personality, and this fact only makes listening to this album a shaky journey in Fish's veins.
Now add to that the melancholy melodies and darkest music that "Marillion" has created for you, and you have a masterpiece designed to shake and excite you.
Interestingly, Fish referred in the accompanying booklet to the 1999 reissue of the album to the fact that part of his soul and being is within the concept story of the album, and so he said: "The concept was maybe too close to home", which proves that the lyrics were a kind of autobiography or, A self-fulfilling prophecy.
Even the album cover hints that this is a kind of reflection on Fish's life. You can see the local pub and some of Fish's heroes there, including Jack Kerouac the writer who is even mentioned in the song "Torch Song", John Lennon, James Dean, and more.
(Photo: Frans Schellekens)
The album opens up with "Hotel Hobbies" by Mark Kelly's keyboard buzz and with what sounds like Peter Trewavas' bass improvisations aiming to put us in the mood for the first episode of the story of Torch, the failed singer who is a descendant of the Jester from "Marillion's" previous album covers. The song describes Torch's life in hotels, the cocaine on the mirror, the Happy Hour, the prostitutes at the bar, and the ticking of the pen that reminds him that he is alive during his attempts to write a song. A classic neo-prog song that just comes to life with the mighty entrance towards the second verse and accompanies almost the entire length with Steve Rothery's vibrato effect on the guitar, what a perfect playing and how much emotion this is is amazing guitarist can convey through.
Torch's story progresses through "Warm Wet Circles" the song that shows us how Torch really deals with alcoholism. A song about the loss of innocence, a song that introduces us to situations in Torch's life in which the "hot and wet circles" likened to alcohol gives him momentary comfort, a warm and loving hug designed to dissipate. On the one hand, they are like his mother's warm hug ("it's like his mother's hug"), and on the other hand, he knows they will lead him to his death just like a bullet fired from a gun in Central Park ("like a bullet hole in central park").
The third track "That Time of the Night (The Short Straw)" opens quietly and dramatically with Mark Kelly's keyboards and Rothery's moaning guitar settling on Peter Trewavas' dominant bass. This song that introduces us to Torch's "Short Straw" - "Torch's Broken Barrel" that begs for help, gradually develops until Fish's amazing entrance at 2:37 that screams his soul and asks: "If you ask me how I feel on the inside ...", Without a doubt one of his best performances on the album and in general, a vocal performance that only intensifies towards the end with the backing vocals of Tessa Niles.
We slow down a bit of pace with the atmospheric and quiet "Going Under" which is just the trigger for the bouncy section "Just For The Record" that follows. What a beauty of a Mosley drumming gives here and how beautiful Steve Rothery's guitar line and Mark Kelly's crazy solo that sends us like a cannon shell straight to the days of "Fugazi".
The sixth track "White Russian" which seals the first side of the vinyl, is one of our favorites on the album. What amazing Fish words reminiscent of the burning of synagogues, the Holocaust, and the Uzi guns on the street corner. "Where are we going from here? ..." Fish asks, pointing an accusing finger at those who allowed the rise of neo-Nazism in Europe. And what an amazing turn this song gets at 3:55, just a brilliant segment with an ending on the epic frontier with Steve Rothery’s amazing solo.
The other side of the vinyl opens up with the first single from the album - "Incommunicado" a song full of contrasts, on the one hand, a bouncy upbeat rhythm and "cheerful" keyboards, and on the other sharp words that refer to all the bad in the music industry, its shortcomings, and pressures on an artist to succeed. And from the general to the individual, in the specific case the pressures exerted by the American record company - Capitol Records on "Marillion". Fish mentioned the impact of "The Who" on the song and keyboardist Adam Wakeman (the son of) noted Mark Kelly's solo here as a great inspiration.
Just like Torch's life in the concept story, we move from the party rhythm of "Incommunicado" to the melancholy rhythm of "Torch Song". The song, which refers to this character of the story, with the sounds of laughter and drinking in the pub that are heard far in the background, behind the jazzy and so special bass of Pete Trewavas, is accompanied by precise descriptions of the dismal 29-year-old Torch's condition. He stands on a stage like a superstar but feels like zero, the addiction to the "bitter drop" and the doctor's warning about his liver condition and that if he continues like this he will not reach the age of 30.
We continue to the piano rhythm for an encounter with one of the most powerful songs on the album, which also opened the performances in the tour that accompanied it - "Slàinte Mhath" - which means "cheers" in Gaelic. The song is led by Ian Mosley's amazing and intelligent drumming and Steve Rothery's circular guitar sentence, while Fish gives us an "interim summary" and tries to explain to us what "the story has been until now".
The next track - "Sugar Mice" is not only one of the highlights of the album but is one of the highlights of the band. A soft and caressing melodic composition in the first half of the song accompanies the moving words that tell us about the bitter fate of Torch who is doomed to live on the road, away from his children, a longing life and suffering of an artist who falls victim to the industry and finds himself comforted by the "bitter drop" arms. Fish is at his peak here in terms of writing, with sentences penetrating an armor: "If you're looking for my address, I'm at No. 1, at the end of the well sitting with the broken angels, clinging to a straw and licking the wounds ...", and when Torch (Fish) turns to his children and says they Can only blame him no one eye will stay dry.
"Your daddy took a raincheck. Ain't no one in here that's left to blame but me, Blame it on me, blame it on me".
From there we move on to the amazing ending of the story, with "The Last Straw". The song takes us back to the hotel corridors of "Hotel Hobbies" with which we opened the album and ends with the duet between Fish and Tessa Niles, who repeat like a mantra the phrase "we are still drowning", "holding on to a straw" .. as if trying to say what was is what will be. The wheel turns and the story of the failed singer who we met at the hotel, with the alcohol and cocaine on the mirror, despite everything and despite everything, is still drowning, clinging to a request ... still drowning ....
Despite the seemingly dismal ending, "Marillion" insisted on ending the album with an ironic statement. An 8-second segment called "Happy Ending" in which Fish is heard shouting "No!" And then laughs and grins...
The album "Clutching at Straws" is a tremendous end to the first period of "Marillion". A masterpiece album that is the band's "Swan Song" in a lineup with singer Fish. An ingenious and one-of-a-kind composition that had all the ingredients needed to leave history. The band that is largely responsible for bringing the progressive back to the world music map. No wonder this album has managed to enter Rolling Stone magazine's 50 greatest progressive albums of all time, as, beyond the creative climax expressed here, this album best expresses the bridge between the classic progressive and the new and up-to-date one.