Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Clutching At Straws (Side A)!

 

Marillion - Clutching At Straws (1987, Vinyl) | Discogs

Greetings, Glancers! Last time, I finally finished listening to what is frequently listed among the best Prog albums of all time, and today I’ll be discussing another one of those. Yes, in my brief look at Wikipedia to grab the track list, I saw that Clutching At Straws made it onto Rolling Stone’s Top 50 Prog albums of all time, as well as being a high charting album and yielding three singles – Incommunicado, Sugar Mice, and Warm Wet Circles – which sounds absolutely filthy. I thoroughly enjoyed Misplaced Childhood while coming to the realization that I’m not the biggest fan of certain facets of Fish’s vocals. Nothing that is ever going to get in the way of me liking the music, but enough for me to fully embrace it with love. I’m picky with vocals – and I fully admit to loving singers many people cannot abide. I have high hopes for this one.

I start as always with the album cover artwork. It’s a pile of blokes sitting at a bar – wide boys, if you will (but please don’t). There are five people propping up the bar, and in the shadows there are others huddled around a table. It’s not exactly a wretched hive of scum and villainy, but there’s a distinct and sinister whiff – something is off about it all. Maybe it’s the black and white quality, maybe it’s that Take On Me paper cut out quality, maybe it’s the fact that they’ve all turned to look at me like I’ve accidentally stumbled in upon some begotten mafia poker meet. Maybe it’s because the first bloke isn’t wearing any shoes and has the infamous jester cloth burning from his arm. Are these the members of the band, or are they famous figures I’m meant to know? The second guy looks like a cross between Capone, Ant McWhatshisface, and Edward G Robinson, and the third looks like the kid from Come And See. The fourth bloke… is he having a fiddle in his pockets and hoping no-one has noticed? Clint Eastwood is next to him, and is giving zero fucks as always. The first bloke has replaced his hair with the tail of a cyborg horse – his hands looks like Yul Brynner’s from Westworld, and he may be the least happy person I’ve ever seen propping up a saloon shoeless. 

Lets get the obvious out of the way; this looks like In Through The Out Door by Led Zep. While that artwork had the sepia look of a forlorn Sunday down the local, munching peanuts out of an ash tray while waiting for the footy to start or someone to talk at. This, well now that I think about it – is there some sense of progression from back to front? Starting with Clint Eastwood and working up to Simon Le Bon at the front, the fashion reminds me of different eras. I’m guessing that’s my mind running off its rails – I’m, wait for it, CLUTCHING AT STRAWS. Given that they’re in a bar, is that phrase another typical play on words? Clutching at straws calls up visions of desperation, but taken more or less literally you’re grabbing a straw to drink through. My wife often drinks sometimes drinks beer through a straw, if it’s in a bottle, but that’s just weird to me. Weird and wrong. 

Hotel Hobbies kicks us off and my first thought is warm. Warm production, warm sound, and a warm fuzzy feeling because of the nostalgic 80s atmosphere it generates. It’s another evocative, cinematic opening song – the synth, bass, chimes, and percussive rattles, the burning guitars – they all conspire to make me think of another grizzled 80s action movie. The image the music creates in my head doesn’t align at all with what the lyrics seem to be about – booze – but more on the lyrics later. The song has, probably, my favourite Marillion guitar solo yet. Somewhere in the middle, the song lifts off into a more turbulent place and leaves the chimes and plodding bass behind. It sounds angry, confused, and jubilant at once, but then the solo drops and it is a very tasty, spine-arching, lip-pouting Eddie Van Halen-esque beast of a thing. It isn’t the most technically difficult or blisteringly fast thing, and it isn’t overly long. It’s the placement of the thing, it’s the fact that it doesn’t make sense. I love guitar solos which don’t make sense.

To try to explain… if you go all the way back to the 50s advent of three minute rock songs – they would have a guitar or piano solo, and those solos by and large followed the rhythm, tempo, and tone of the bulk of the song. They would also largely recap or flow neatly alongside the main vocal melody – sometimes the guitar solo was just the vocal melody played instead of sung. Since then in the majority of mainstream guitar based music, the guitar solo has followed a similar pattern. With Metal, and with other genres which required or demanded more technical ability and complexity, the solo grew beyond these boundaries, but by and large if you’ve listened to enough songs you can work out at what point in a song the solo would drop, and you kind of knew what the next series of notes would be based on the rest of the song. Simple rules – you keep in tune, you keep in time, and even when adding layers of complexity these rules are still adhered to. This solo – it doesn’t do those things. It doesn’t make sense. It’s not the first solo to do this, by any means, but I do enjoy when this sort of thing happens. It’s more like a random jazz explosion, or a breakdown, or an improvised jam. Sometimes it happens when you’re out of time and ideas while recording, you send the disgruntled guitarist into the booth and tell them to play the first thing that comes into their mind. This solo doesn’t correlate with any other guitar part on the song, nor does it recall any central melody. It’s a big blast of noise, like a bronx cheer.

Without that solo, I’m not sure I would have remembered the song. That’s what stands out to me, outside of the spirited atmospheric intro. There isn’t a lot there to sink my teeth in to from a melodic or emotive standpoint. It’s not tuneless, autonomous, but it doesn’t have that killer hook or memorable moment. Musically, it feels like another Concept album intro which is best served hearing in the context of everything else, but lyrically Fish is on top wordplay form once more. It takes no effort from the listener to envisage those images of decay and washed out waste, and when taking the album title into consideration along with the multiple references to drugs and booze and excess – is this a Concept album about getting hammered? It’s already a topic covered on previous Marillion songs, albums, and artwork but it seems we’re going down that route again. Lyrically it feels as if this song takes place narratively somewhere in the middle of Misplaced Childhood. Our protagonist is in the bleary midst of another binge comedown, scribbling down words… almost for his own survival – is he writing lyrics and ideas for his next song, or is this a literal confession? Presumably the next songs will shed more light.

I’ll get this out of the way – Warm Wet Circles does not feel like a single. Not to me anyway. It certainly sounds smooth, affable, and there’s enough melody in its verses to prop itself up in your memory. But as we know, singles live and die on how infectious their chorus is, and Warm Wet Circles doesn’t feature an obvious chorus. There’s a recurring riff/solo where you expect the chorus to be, and this is followed up by and extending vocal outro or verse where Fish unleashes the lyrics with a louder, more fiery delivery. There have been plenty of singles which have lacked an obvious chorus, but in the grand scheme of things it’s the traditional format which tops the charts. I’m surprised this was selected as a single (without having heard what the rest of the album has to offer) and it’s in the coveted 2nd spot in the track list – Kayleigh’s spot from last time. Musically, it isn’t too dissimilar from Hotel Hobbies – there’s the same languid pace which accentuates that feeling of squander and lethargy, and the song is broadly in two parts with a slower intro and a more energetic outro, bridged by guitar antics. The lead in riff hints at a bit of an upbeat hit, but that never transpires. 

Forgetting the fact that this was a single, the song is… nice. It’s pleasant. It doesn’t overreach or overexcite. It’s calming and inoffensive, ponderous. I’m guessing the lyrics don’t mimic the musical tone, and from what I’ve picked up before Googling them is more booze references, more images of things gone askew, the visions of a late night train ride home. The second half of the song, the part with a moderately harsher edge is introduced by a neat transition of smacked piano keys and smooth vocals followed by that mini solo. Once the harder vocals begin, some of them land, some of them don’t. Having not heard the man live, I don’t know how suited he is to blasting these words out, but some of them land wonderfully, others not so much. The note wavers too much, and while that wavering is part of his style, the note does seem to waver out of tune somewhat. Maybe that hints at being drunk, but that sounds generous. Generous while I’m being critical – excellent. It’s only a couple of moments though, so I won’t hold it against him. Then again, another take could have smoother this out.

Turns out my suspicions were correct when I felt that Warm Wet Circles sounded filthier than a cavewoman’s fur bikini. There are several layers here, circles being cyclical, circles being the shape of certain body parts and movements, circles being groups and relationships. These are wrapped and warped together in a mish mash of puns. It’s all a little blunt and accusatory. I don’t want to use terms like chauvinist or shaming without knowing the context… but there’s something. I do like ‘where ceremonies pause at the jewellers shop display’ hinting that all the talk of love and marriage and future comes to an abrupt embarrassed halt once the price of reality sets in. The second verse extends the dichotomy between hopes and dreams on one side, which is characterized here by the woman, and the ‘having a laugh, say anything to get her into bed’ male approach. I’m faffing here, not for the first time in this post, but those are them there feelings I git. Actually, reading the first two verses makes the final verse feel less accusatory and shaming towards the woman. It feels more tragic, it feels like a hundred virginities crushed, it feels like loss without gain. 

I like the song, but I think I’ll forget about it fairly quickly. No main hook, no chorus, no wacky out of place guitar solo. Unless it’s something I’m going to listen to for days on end, it’s probably going to pass beneath my feet. Thankfully, the same can’t be said for That Time Of The Night. It returns to the darker atmospheric vibe of the first track and it scratches that itch I have for throbbing bass and synth shadow drenched music. As mentioned in previous posts, it’s one of those songs which reminds me of late night sleepy drives – the headlights only showing me a 10 metre circumference of existence outside the bubble of the car, the warm air numbing me through the vents, the music sending me on personal flights of fancy. 

It soon became one of my favourite Marillion songs so far – every facet of the song is pointed at crafting an atmosphere at tone from the bass notes like fingers tapping at a bar, to the reverb laden, scratchy guitars. The song could have ploughed this furrow for another couple of minutes and I still would have enjoyed it, but before the second minute mark another trademark transition comes, pulling the song out of the shadows towards a more euphoric direction. The lyrics contradict the music – lyrically we’re still firmly talking about desperation and sadness, but musically we sound increasingly jubilant – sweeping crashes, booming drums, and even some Soul style backing vocals. There’s a few lyrical call backs to previous songs – most notably Warm Wet Circles – which of course aids in the coherency of the overall concept. 

It’s around this point in the album that I begin to question whether or not this is a Concept Album. Stay with me on this, because I know you’re already shouting ‘of course it is, you idiot’, but I’m going to go out on a limb and actually say this fits more with the trappings of, gasp, a Rock Opera. I’ll talk about that more when I get to the songs which make me feel this is a Rock Opera over and above a Concept Album, but just to lay down my thoughts on the difference between the two beasts here – a Rock Opera, to me, is more Cinematic (or theatrical) and relies more on overt physical performance, characterisation, and more often than not a more clear, structured narrative. A Concept Album deals in concepts, a Rock Opera tends to strive more something more tangible, possibly even more wanky, and may follow the more traditional structure of a ‘story’. The more I listened to this album, the more I found in common with the more notable Rock Operas, and in turn it made me re-evaluate the previous albums and the band as a whole. Fish, with his words, his stories, his theatricality, seems like he is operating in the operatic world rather than the conceptual one, but maybe it was drug use and the band which tipped the whole product into the conceptual space. And that may just be the most ridiculous thing I have ever written. Grunties.

Returning to the lyrics of That Time Of The Night – it’s a refreshingly crisp and to the point collection of lines which retain their poetry without sounding like they have come from a frustrated try-hard. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision to make the lyrics more palatable to the masses – I don’t get the impression that the band or Fish would ever choose to dumb themselves down to see a spike in fan intake, but maybe there was a decision to ease off from the more obtuse references and wordplay. Or maybe these words simply fit the narrative and song more than rifling off unique metaphors ever would. Based on what Paul has said in previous episodes about this album and it’s positioning in Fish’s history with the band, there are some telling lines; ‘And if my owners let me have some free time some day, with all good intention I would probably run away’. It’s easy to draw certain conclusions. The booze, addiction, drinking language continues throughout, although the last time about picking up my broken heart… ehhh, it’s a little twee. We’ve all been there, but it does feel like something a little Beiber or scorned pop boy might scribble. That’s the Catch#22 of being a great lyricist – people are unduly unfair when you then write something simple.

cover art for Script For A Jester's Tear - Side 1

Going Under continues the dark, shadow-drenched atmosphere thanks to a creepy arpeggio and pulsing synth. There’s quite a lot of reverb on the track – including the vocals – and Fish moves between a matter of fact and a yearning approach with his performance. It’s a song I quickly grew fond of – the decision to avoid having a chorus and instead draw out the verses for maximum atmosphere and tension. You could argue that it isn’t the most exciting song in the world, it isn’t, but maybe an earlier incarnation of the band might have decided to stretch and weave this into a five minute plus song and left it in that tricky dirge territory. As it stands it’s the perfect length, serving both as an effective standalone and a bridge between the bookending songs. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that Sanja is going to see this track, and the album as a whole, in cinematic terms. It’s another song with an atmosphere which lends itself easily to such feelings, so I’m right there too. I can see the barfly stooped over spilled booze and cigarette butts, I can imagine him sitting on the edge of the bed, head in hands, glancing up occasionally only to catch a horrified glimpse of his worn, grim face in the clouded mirror. I can see him treading the neon lit night streets past cliched street-crawlers, hookers, junkies, homeless cart-pushers, and possibly a dude with a misspelled bible verse scrawled on a cardboard sign. Hackneyed, I know. But those are the things.

We’re on familiar lyrical ground – a lot of regret, a lot of talk about turning to booze and the consequences; addiction, isolation, escape, acceptance. It’s another brief lyric – no room for flowery expression, no patience for extended metaphor. The matter of fact, exhausted nature of the vocals finds its way to the words with a turn to ambivalence and shirking – you can imagine trying to have a conversation with the person, but they’re mumbling brief responses just so you’ll go away and let them get back to the cycle of sleep and drink. I can’t say I’ve ever been an addict, but having several friends who have gone as far as losing their lives to such things… it’s a tricky song and subject matter to talk about as a lyricist (unless or especially because you’ve been there) and as a listener. There are a lot of ways to cover the subject matter, this is one way, and it’s mostly successful.

Just For The Record. Biffo’s going to hate this but Fish sounds like Phil Collins here. It’s that same burping/yawning vocal style that Collins does – the only thing missing is the heavy reverb. Really nice tone on the guitar and great, simple solo.  I made a note on my first listen which stated something along the lines of ‘The main keyboard riff is annoying, reminds me of The Doors more pub-band moments’. In listening back though, I don’t know what I was going on about. There isn’t even a main keyboard riff, so either I was talking about the synth section in the middle or I mixed up songs somewhere along the road. I like the synth section too, it’s broken up with a catchy vocal refrain before launching into a solo which reminds me of my favourite Zep song (All My Love) and then merges into another lovely solo before a fist punching climax. In total – not my favourite song, but another entry which nudges me towards thinking this may be my favourite Marillion album so far. Unless it goes wrong in the second half.

Reading the lyrics – that refrain… the song title. Have I mentioned this in a previous post, or did I make a personal note to bring this up? I’ll risk repeating myself – I wrote a song called Refrain in my younger days, actually one of my favourites, and while I wasn’t specifically talking about alcohol or drugs (for me it was malaise and lack of impetus), my song feels quite thematically similar to this one. Get this – my song was called Refrain, the song featured a vocal refrain (a repetition) which was ‘I’m going to dig myself out of this hole that I’m in some day’, but the song was actually about me recognizing my condition but, wait for it, REFRAINING from doing anything about it. That’s some B-Tier Fish level punnery right there.

The song is suitably self-deprecating and self aware – the guy knows he has a problem, and like any good addict he claims he can stop any day. There’s not a lot of progression in any sort of narrative between the songs so far – that does kick my Rock Opera thinking in the nuts a bit – unless the whole narrative is simply about being drunk and not doing anything to improve matters. Some good lines, a few words singled out and repeated, mostly straight to the point once again.

White Russian starts out in pure Floyd territory, with the eerie whistling wind sounds and a whispered single line. The keys sound like they’re hammered, such is the volume and impact of the performance – along with the vocal and drums it sounds fairly vicious. The bass is doing its own ascending/descending thing quite low in the mix and there is another prominent vocal refrain – Uzis on the street corner/where do we go from here. The guitars gradually come later in the song, the drumming becomes more chaotic, all building the anger. I’m not sure what they’re angry about just yet, but a look at the lyrics should reveal all. 

It’s a song that doesn’t feel six and a half minutes long – by the time the song calms down it’s past the four minute mark, yet feel like only a minute or two has passed. This quiet section morphs into an extended outro with a great, epic atmosphere – vocals, guitars squealing in the background, then the creepy child’s toy ending – it all works for me. It’s another strong song, and a strong close to a mostly superb first half. If I have one gripe with the song – it’s that thing Fish does with his vocals that I’ve mentioned before. Listen to how he sings ‘conscience’ – that’s the perfect example of what I’m saying. I don’t know why, but this is like nails down a chalkboard for me. I’ve tried to understand why this is, but I come up blank – lets just leave it as ‘ I don’t like it when he does that thing’. It doesn’t get in the way of me loving the song. From that maddening carousel like/calliope like opening which continues to raise in its intensity, to the eerie, yet epic ending… yeah, good good good.

I’m guessing the title is another play on words… is there a lot of anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia, or racism in general? It’s not something I know much about. The lyrics mention synagogues, the Holocaust, growing violence… something about the rise of Neo Nazis or religious hate groups, and how quickly we forget the murders and massacres of the past? With the throwbacks to booze, of course. It’s a fairly bleak lyric – like the addict accepting that they have a problem but are unable to escape it, we’re admitting that hatred is everywhere, hatred is rising, and that it’s gonna come back another day – it’s inescapable. When was this – 1987? He wasn’t wrong.

Finally, we can end this one here because it looks like the podcast is a single episode. Does that mean that Paul and Sanja have less to say about this one? Does it mean they don’t like it? Lets not get ahead of ourselves. Let us know in the comments what you think of Clutching At Straws!

Tell it like it is!

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