I Lose Some of Me in All These Places
147 · 20 November 97
H: Ice Cream Genius
I keep a short list of impracticably dadaist business concepts around, in case I ever suddenly find myself massively wealthy, and need to quickly convince large numbers of people that I'm too deranged to pester for money. I'm not giving up on the notion yet, but I'll blow one of my favorites: opening an airplane-food restaurant. It would serve tiny microwaved faux-international entrées, naturally, served in little plastic foil-covered dishes, eaten with ice-cold miniature forks, accompanied (either five minutes before, or five minutes after the rest of your meal) by three ounces of some low-grade fruit juice and a small tub of raspberry preserves that, as best you can tell, is intended for spreading directly on your napkin. I've vacillated, historically, between thinking that the physical layout of the restaurant should also mimic an airplane, so that you eat wedged into stiff, narrow seats, with your food on a tray that bounces up and down at unpredictable intervals, and thinking that it would be even more amusing to serve such ludicrous food on great, sprawling oaken tables, under candle chandeliers, surrounded by the severed heads of woodland fauna and the polished hauberks of an unspecified vanquished enemy. I've gotten good use out of this joke, but every time I drag it out an impertinent voice in the back of my mind mumbles something petulant and indistinct about the fact that I usually actually enjoy eating on airplanes. I ignore it, because everybody knows that airplane food is terrible, therefore I can't possibly really enjoy it.
On my recent flight to London, though, I finally realized why the experience of eating on an airplane always seems disproportionately memorable. Airplane meals always interrupt whatever book I've set out to read on the trip, and this particular repast served as an intermission in Obscenity, Anarchy and Reality, an abstruse lifestyle polemic by Penn State philosophy professor Crispin Sartwell, momentarily notorious, a few weeks ago, for his facetious claim to have developed a formula proving that the Rolling Stones were the best rock band ever. The book does not elaborate on either the spurious formula, or the serious and subtler aesthetic and cultural points that underlie it, and frankly there is rather less obscenity and anarchy in it than I expected, as well. What it is, mostly, is a paean to the power of unreserved immersion in the present. This is a frequently torturous subject, as the English language is not very well-suited to discussing the idea of reality, itself, on the meta-level Sartwell is interested in, which results in an unfortunate preponderance of sentences, like "The peculiar experience that reality offers us is the experience of ourselves as real, as belonging to the order of reality, and, at the same time, and inseparably, the experience of ourselves as particular, as situated within that order", that are dangerously apt to collapse into meaningless tautological rubble unless you handle them very carefully, which the incessant roaring hum of airplane cabins is not especially conducive to. Sartwell's point, however, which he teases variants of out of Nietzsche's doctrine of eternal recurrence, George Santayana's faith in the educational efficacy of shock, Tantric sex, Lakota pipe ceremonies, Ralph Waldo Emerson's belief in the virtue of sincerity, Vaclav Havel's anti-political political theory, club-wielding Zen masters, and his own erratic past, is a serious one: a vast majority of human enterprise is dedicated to a frantic evasion of simple, immediate, genuine experience. Finding joy in the plainest moments of existence is not a good foundation for aggressive growth programs, and serenity is stubbornly difficult to accessorize, so Western culture foments discontent and restlessness in order to keep its vicious-cycle flywheels spinning. The reason airplane meals seem inexplicably meaningful to me, I now realize, particularly on very long flights taken by myself, is that they are a rare instance in which, while I eat a meal, I am totally focused on every individual detail of it. I take off my Discman headphones, so I can hear the flight attendants' questions; I put down my book, because with a tray of food in front of you there's not enough room in an airplane seat to do anything but eat it; the meal is an event that relieves the oppressive monotony of sitting, silently, in one place, for six hours straight, so I scrutinize every element of the experience. If I'm served them on an airplane, I pay an attention to the stalest Keebler cracker and clammiest disc of nominal cheese that the most succulent peanut-crusted pan-seared tuna steak doesn't enjoy if I eat it in a restaurant back on earth, amidst music, decor, company and ritual. For once, in my endlessly voracious and multi-tasked existence, I am doing only one thing.
The capacity for immersion is, to me, Marillion vocalist Steve Hogarth's defining lyrical gift. Some rare writers have the ability to derive eternal and universal truths from the most evanescent and mundane observations, but Steve's talent is subtler and even more uncommon: he is able to make fleeting and commonplace observations seem timeless and true without generalizing them in any way. As he exhorts us to see, in Afraid of Sunlight's "Beautiful", which I think might as well be his theme song, beauty isn't something you search for, it's something you need only courage to be. When he writes about the inmates of a North London women's prison, a becalmed life in a mining town, or the tawdry glamour of a California scam artist's Mustang, it seems to me that he makes a claustrophobic setting, for the duration of the song, into the entirety of his world, without asking it to expand to justify his dedication. This can be very unnerving, as we're not used to anthemic melancholy being based on such self-contained themes. I usually think of Kate Bush as the queen of empathy, but Kate tends to empathize with her subjects in such a way that their alien perspectives are rendered sensible, and Steve goes one step further, adopting alien perspectives so completely that their alienness is actually part of the rendering. To accept a moment as it is, you have to somehow (maybe this is easier for you than me) transcend the temptation to try to explain it while it's happening, because explaining is stepping outside of it. The airplane cracker is memorable because I am able to eat it without reference to any other cracker, any other cracker-encompassing world-view, anything. An airplane-food restaurant is a brilliant idea, only backwards: what I should really do is get a passenger jet, replace the first-class cabin with a state-of-the-art kitchen, load the diners up in coach, and then serve them the most gluttonous, decadent meal of their lives, while flying them in an enormous six-hour circle that ends up at the same airport they took off from. I suspect, however, that if you think of the airplane as a restaurant, not an airplane, the self-referentiality will actually ruin everything. In fact, I've probably ruined the idea by explaining it, and will have to resort to my backup plan, which is to buy a small island, declare it an independent nation, and then send myself to compete in the Olympics as its representative.
There hasn't actually been much of a gap between Marillion albums, from the listener's perspective, with the 1996 double-live album Made Again filling the space between 1995's Afraid of Sunlight and 1997's This Strange Engine, but the band found time for solo projects all the same. Steve Hogarth's, Ice Cream Genius, is credited obscurely to "H", and finds him having assembled the odd cast of XTC guitarist Dave Gregory, ex-Japan keyboardist Richard Barbieri, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, and session bassist Chucho Merchan and percussionist Luis Jardim. It seems like this ensemble would produce very different noises than Marillion, but it's a tribute to how thoroughly the rest of Marillion have integrated Hogarth into the band that at least half of these songs, even with other people playing them, sound basically like Marillion songs. The haunting opening of "The Evening Shadows" and the long, drifting "The Deep Water" (at least up until the tribal percussion comes in toward the end), could easily be out-takes from Afraid of Sunlight. "Better Dreams" not only resembles that album in scope and pace, but its searing portrait of Southern California hollowness seems to me very much like a chapter out of the same novel as Afraid of Sunlight's "Gazpacho", "Cannibal Surf Babe" and "Out of This World". "You Dinosaur Thing", Hogarth's affectionate and appropriately unfashionable salute to his own anachronism, is more rock than Beach-Boys pop, but it has the same wide-eyed giddiness, to me, as "Cannibal Surf Babe". The stylistic variations in the other four songs are real, but mainly incremental: the spare, playful "Really Like" would surely have been denser and more propulsive in the band's hands; "Cage" is bloopy and robotic, where Marillion are soaring and humane; "Nothing to Declare" approaches Blue Nile austerity. Only the twangy, INXS-like "Until You Fall" sounds like something Marillion couldn't have been contorted to produce, but even then, Hogarth got the band from "Warm Wet Circles" to "Hooks in You" in only one album, so it's not that hard to imagine them somehow reconciling themselves to these brass stabs and slashing guitar riffs, too.
There's even less need for another lyrical outlet, since Steve writes the lyrics for Marillion songs, anyway, but this album does see him get through eight songs without usual collaborator John Helmer, and several of these pieces rank high on my ladder of Hogarth texts. Rhyming "drunk" with "Munch" (on "Really Like") is a classic Hogarth touch, and I can't help but smile at "What do you know of being young? / I hear you're almost twenty-one" ("You Dinosaur Thing"). The showpieces, though, to me, are clearly the last two songs. "Better Dreams", the evisceration of petty LA aspirations, is a long, unflinching build-up to the plaintive and unanswered question "Can we dream better dreams than these?" Such is the nature of Hogarth's writing that lines that chill me may just make you wince, but "[Leo] rents a one-room apartment that no one's ever seen", "She bites her lip as he takes her; / He makes love like he's alone", "He leaves her smudge-eyed and stranded" and "This is a town full of Leos, / The sun shines on the cars" (as opposed to the people) all paralyze me with the fear that there are details of my own life that, seen clearly, are just as horrifically pathetic. "Nothing to Declare", the album's conclusion, wraps an aching love story around a Heathrow customs sign. Conventional poetics would turn the airplane traffic into a metaphor for transience or escape or loss, or cast the narrator's soliloquy as a vigil, waiting for the departed lover's return, but in Hogarth's version, which ends with the singer just watching the planes fly over his house, the pain is an end in itself. I think Sartwell would have me walk through Heathrow customs, after the flight on which I read his book, just content to be walking through Heathrow customs, not singing somebody else's song about it to myself, but attaching songs to my surroundings is, I'm afraid, the only way I know to truly inhabit them.
The Wishing Tree: Carnival of Souls
The Wishing Tree is billed as Marillion guitarist Steve Rothery's solo project, but it takes some inspection to see how this is true. Elfin vocalist Hannah Stobart sings, and gets a co-writing credit, on all these songs, so my initial impression was that this was at least half her album, with Rothery and Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas helping out, much like Steve Kilbey did for Donnette Thayer in Hex. If you read the credits to the end, though, you find that Stobart's co-writing consists almost exclusively of "additional vocal melodies". Rothery wrote all the music, plays guitar and keyboards, and produced the album, and Marillion lyricist John Helmer provided the words. Stobart's voice ensures that this album will sound nothing like Marillion, but Rothery's guitar work here is different enough that you'd be unlikely to confuse the two even without her. He still launches into unmistakable legato solo runs periodically, but where on Marillion songs those runs usually state central motifs, here they are mostly conventional solos, and the substances of the songs come more often from delicate acoustic guitar patterns. A Celtic folk ambience hovers over the album, even where it surges into rock overdrive. "Evergreen" could easily be a Clannad song. The four guitar-and-voice pieces, "Starfish", "Hall of Memories", "Fire-Bright" and "The Dance", all remind me strongly of similarly configured Happy Rhodes songs, with traces of Loreena McKennitt and Abra Moore fluttering through Hannah's singing. "Nightwater" and "Empire of Lies", flowing band songs, sound a bit like Grace Pool (who I miss dearly) or Grey Eye Glances. "Midnight Snow" is jazzy and diffident, with a trace of dub throb. "Night of the Hunter", except for Stobart's ethereal vocal, is practically a Southern-rock jam. And "Thunder in Tinseltown", with a higher noise floor, might be a Tanya Donelly song. The most notable overall structural difference, I think, is that Marillion songs, especially the longer ones, tend to go through radical metamorphoses from section to section, and these are predominantly content to stick to verses and choruses. I don't know whether this means that Rothery isn't the one responsible for the complexity of Marillion's songs, or that the absence of it from these is the reason they're on this album, not a Marillion one, or whether Steve just wanted a change of pace. Whatever the explanation, this album does seem like a tangent to Marillion, however agreeable, where Hogarth's Ice Cream Genius sounds much more like an impatient album of songs that, any other year, would have been Marillion's.
Fish: Sunsets on Empire
Fish, Steve Hogarth's predecessor, left Marillion after their fourth album, 1987's Clutching at Straws. Their quick recovery, despite the enormity of the void his departure left, was no more astonishing than Fish's abject collapse over the course of his first four solo albums. The most interesting thing about 1990's Vigil in a Wilderness of Mirrors, his first, to me, was its hysterically over-conceived gatefold spread, by Marillion cover artist Mark Wilkinson, whose meaning you'd need the Jaws of Life to pry out. The songs, by contrast, were alarmingly simplistic, and the final one, the self-descriptively titled "Cliché", featured such obtrusively inane lyrics that I still can't believe the Fish who wrote "Forgotten Sons" and "Fugazi" could even countenance it, much less write it. The 1991 follow-up, Internal Exile, had a couple moments of musical life (the Marillion-like "Credo", and the electrifying Celtic-jam title track), but felt even more lost, overall. 1993 saw Songs From the Mirror, a disastrous, if earnest, album of covers, and by 1994's Suits Fish seemed to have become possessed by nostalgia for Marillion's early critical reception, when they were often dismissed as a Genesis rip-off, seeking to recreate it by undisguised imitation of Phil Collins' solo style. The past three years were studio-album-less, but a steady gush of self-released concert bootlegs and two wildly overpriced import best-of discs (which I flatly refuse to buy, as they contain re-recordings of Marillion songs, the thought of which makes me simultaneously blindingly furious and desperately sad) kept his bin in use. Most artists I would have given up on by this point, but four lame solo albums are not yet enough to outweigh the four immortal Marillion albums Fish participated in, which contain, in my opinion, some of the best lyric-writing in all of popular music. But the fact that I keep buying Fish albums in memory of his past life doesn't mean that I expect them to be any good.
To my great surprise, Sunset on Empire plays like somebody finally double-checked Fish's prescriptions, and discovered that he'd been sedated to the brink of stupor for the entire preceding decade. An alternate theory, prompted by the album's credits, is that new producer, keyboardist and co-writer Steven Wilson found a way to elicit an intensity from Fish that Robin Boult, James Cassidy, Chris Kimsey and John Kelly all couldn't coax out of him. Or perhaps Fish himself just decided to try something else, this time, and I happen to like it better. However it came about, this album seems determined to make up, all at once, for every energy the other four lacked. "The Perception of Johnny Punter", the eight-and-a-half-minute opening track, is a sprawling, incendiary stomp, its central guitar hook cycling like a revving engine, until the strings surge in at the end and drive the rest of the instruments out. The lyrics aren't dense with wordplay and consonance like Fish's were of old, but there is fury, at least, which can make up for a lot. The pulsing, mid-tempo "Goldfish & Clowns" alludes, tentatively, to bits of Fish's old harlequin imagery. The slight, Beatles-y "Change of Heart" seems like a partial reversion (co-written, again, by Boult; perhaps he's the source of the limp mainstream sentimentality I dislike), but "What Colour Is God?" is encouragingly ragged and biting, and its rapped section (Fish remains, in my opinion, one of the only white men in progressive rock who can rap, albeit in a broad Scots accent, without making a total fool of himself) is related to, if perhaps not a resurrection of, the machine-gun too-many-syllables lyrical style of the first two Marillion albums. The slow lullaby "Tara" I could do without, musically, but I assume Tara is his young daughter, and I support any artist's right to write songs for their children. The chorus of "Jungle Ride" (Boult again) is more sing-song than I'd prefer, but the spoken narration in the verses is like a Scottish Robbie Robertson wandering through a Blade Runner future (the song started making a lot more sense to me when I realized that he's saying "We didn't belong to this carnage", not "We didn't belong to this college"), and the wailing, bagpipe-like violin gives the accompaniment an eerily demonic character. And although I'm not generally fond of drinking songs, "Worm in a Bottle" has enough guitar squall to keep my mind off its subject matter.
This album's center comes, for me, close to its conclusion. "Brother 52", three from the end, is this album's descendant of "Internal Exile". A recorded phone-conversation forms large parts of it, which is usually a recipe for a song that gets old extremely quickly, especially since the conversation, here, is a long explanation, by a drawling, militant American survivalist, of the killing of a code-named associate by federal agents, which story I strongly suspect has another side to it. The simmering, fiddle-laced Celtic backdrop to the recording, however, keeps it in motion, and Fish's choruses, interspersed through it, take the speaker at his word, and weave the anthem that, perhaps, he deserves. "Sunsets on Empire" itself is slow and dramatic, guitar chords streaking the sky like jet trails, slide guitar and backing vocals sighing, piano ringing calmly and clearly amid the storming crescendos. Probably, if it had been up to me, I would have let this be the last track, since it plays so much like exit music. Fish opts to go out on a quieter note, however, with the spare, breathy "Say It With Flowers", just guitar and some understated keyboards. "To be honest, I'm tired", he admits, as the song fades out, and for once I think he's earned the rest.
Marillion: This Strange Engine
Marillion, too, seem to me to return, refreshed, from their time away and solo digressions. Afraid of Sunlight was, I thought, an epilogue to Brave, just as Clutching at Straws was the Fish incarnation's epilogue to Misplaced Childhood, very much a part of the closely parallel course the band's second life has charted to its first. Fish's era only managed four studio albums, though, so This Strange Engine, the Hogarth era's fifth, enters unknown territory. The other four seem, in retrospect, to form a logical sequence (Seasons End is the rock one, and the transition; Holidays in Eden, moving away from the band's past, is the album of short pop songs; Brave, then, the concept epic, is the anti-pop reaction; Afraid of Sunlight, most of it hushed and haunting, with the one notably dizzy exception, is the anti-concept reaction, which pushes the atmospheric and pop urges each toward their extremes), but not one, it seems to me, that mandates a particular next step. Rothery's solo outing suggests a few more acoustic guitars (sure enough...), but otherwise this album could go anywhere.
And, in fact, it sort of does go everywhere. "Man of a Thousand Faces", which opens with acoustic guitar and piano, before sliding into its delirious, swirling second section, mimics parts of Seasons End in structure, but the first section is more restrained than anything on the earlier album, and the second section correspondingly more cathartic. Parts of "One Fine Day" are muted like Afraid of Sunlight, but other parts have Holidays in Eden's glossy shimmer, still others have a strident blues-guitar wail, and there's also a methodical simulated string quartet. "80 Days" is the sparkling pop song, on the order of "No One Can" (and Sartwell would be proud of the chorus: "But right now, / All I want to do is / Get real"). "Estonia" is long, slow and abstract, its lineage from "Splintering Heart", and "Easter", and even "Kingdom Come", by Steve Hogarth's old band, the Europeans; I can't see how it relates to Estonia, the country, though Hogarth's history suggests that the title is meant to be significant. "Memory of Water", liquid and chromatic, alludes to Hogarth's "Better Dreams" and to Holidays in Eden's "The Party". "An Accidental Man" shares some guitar and keyboard sounds with "Cannibal Surf Babe", but substitutes hints of late Rush and early Deep Purple for the earlier song's Beach Boys lilt. "Hope for the Future" starts out like it's going to be Marillion's answer to Queensrÿche's "Silent Lucidity", and unexpectedly turns into Jethro Tull and Lou Reed for a few bars each, along the way, but ends up more like a gospel choir on a Mardi Gras carnival float, surrounded by wheeling legions of cherubim armed with vibraphones and trumpets.
The album's finale, where the stray concept-album urges seem to all have accumulated, is the fifteen-minute title track, which manages to recapitulate, along its winding way, just about every phase of the band's history, from the jerky rhythms and slithering keyboard solos of Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi through the glassy arpeggios of Misplaced Childhood, the propulsive guitars of "Incommunicado" and "Hooks in You", the angelic yearning of "Dry Land" and the frustration of "Waiting to Happen", the bells, piano and hesitant whispers of Brave, the idylls of Afraid of Sunlight, and some squealing saxophone from I don't know where. The story, which Sartwell could have substituted for Santayana's bowling-ball-dropped-on-foot thought-experiment, if Marillion were a respected philosopher and Santayana was an English progressive rock band almost nobody in America has ever heard of, eventually involves a boy whose philosophical awakening is prompted by the assault of a random swarm of bees, but the childhood leading up to it is lovingly detailed, including a moving middle section about the sacrifice the boy's father makes, coming home from the navy to work in a coal mine, so he can be with his family again. Sartwell's critical attitude-shift, from resisting your immediate reality to basking in it, ebbs and flows throughout the song, from childhood self-sufficiency to restless dreaming, from the father's odyssey to his homecoming, the pain of the bee-stings mixing with chaotic flashbacks, and then swallowing everything, both as itself and as a cipher for everything unknown. The "strange engine" is, when Hogarth lets it be narrowed down to a word, Love, but he means love in the broadest, deepest sense, love of the world, love of, as Sartwell would put it, "what is, precisely as it is". Engines, and magic, and pain, are all forms of the same elemental energy. Marillion has become, for me, the band that can best channel this energy, can redirect its manic, incessant writhing into music. They are the soundtrack of the complexity of reality. One could argue, reasonably enough, that reality has its own soundtrack, which I am explicitly resisting by trying to substitute This Strange Engine in its place. I have, somewhere, a simple, primordial life I should be leading, and all these albums and books and movies, this objection contends, can only carry me farther from it. Well, so be it. They have carried me across far too many oceans for swimming back to be an option. I can only press on, in the hopes that the world is round, after all, and that one of these winds, which sing of treasures and dream of death, will take me where I need to go.