Greetings, Glancers! As my post for Part 1 of Brave was long enough, I’m just going to get stuck straight in to Hollow Man. Paul Verhoeven directs this…. no, you’ve heard that one? Gotcha. Hollow Man is not the ballad you were expecting. Sure it’s a piano led soft song with a lonesome vocal and sparse arrangement, but at no point is it a ballad – even a cursory listen to the yearning, appealing chorus would make the most casual listener a little uncomfortable. It’s a painfully lonely, rain down the windowpane song. Around halfway through the arrangement does liven up – a drum beat like a pencil on teeth, a series of strings like the ending credits of a movie where the hero dies in the final scene, and a single guitar playing drunken spacey tingles. I enjoyed the distinction of the central two parts of the song – the sorrowful and empty first half followed by how questioning and desperate the second half is with its endless series of lyrics.
Speaking of the lyrics, I found myself reminded of Nirvana’s In Utero. That album has a particular perversion for body horror, comparing some of life’s supposed precious moments to parasitic diseases. While Cobain became fixated on these troubling metaphors, H is content to spell things out more plainly in lines such as ‘I can feel the outside feeding on my inside’. I’m not positive as to why the song is Hollow Man instead of Hollow Woman – maybe that extra syllable didn’t work with the music and rhythm or maybe the narrator (assuming it’s the same woman from the beginning) has gone as far as comparing herself with the empty male tooth and grin type who use her. Rather than the depths of depression you feel obliged to sink to in appreciation of Cobain’s lyrics, the sense of abuse and loss of self here is more universal. That sentiment in ‘I think I have become one of the lonely/now that everybody talks to me/I feel I have become one of the empty’ is not only a feeling reserved for the popular or successful, but one I would imagine most of us normies have felt at some point. Not to beat the Buffy drum again (especially now all of that awful Joss ‘turns out I am a dick’ Whedon stuff is coming out) but I was reminded of Cordelia’s ‘I can be surrounded by people and be completely alone’ bit. Buffy asks ‘if you feel so alone, why do you work so hard at being popular’. Cordelia’s response – ‘well it beats being alone all by yourself’. It’s a line that cuts very close to overwrought and silly teen drama, but it works well in the context of the episode and in revealing a new side to a character who had been essentially one-note until that point. Similarly here, the line isn’t eye-catching in and of itself, but works so well in the context of the song and the wider album.
Elsewhere, the feeling of disconnection from self pervades; splitting from your body in a pseudo out of body experience, echoed by the lovely line ‘a blind eye sees the fragile vandalised’. I’m not 100% sure what that means, but it rolls sweetly off the tongue. The talk of commodities continues (‘stand us in our silly clothes/put our batteries in’) as the narrator sees herself as one of many, the latest in a production line, a thing plucked off a shelf for today’s amusement, and (I’ll quit it with the comparisons one day) reminding me of both Little Baby Nothing and Yes by Manic Street Preachers. From the anthemic ‘hopelessly passive and compatible… hold me in your arms, I wanna be your only possession’ and ‘you are pure, you are snow/we are the useless sluts that they mould’ of the former, to the infamous ‘he’s a boy/you want a girl so tear off his cock/tie his hair in bunches, fuck him, call him Rita if you want’ of the latter, there’s a clear through line of the replaceable, faceless nature of women in these three songs, whether they are implied as sex workers or just happen to be female. This song might be my favourite Marillion lyric of the era, even if I did mishear ‘sit quietly and listen to the breeze’ as ‘so quietly listen to the graves’ and see my version as canon.
Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury was a surprise. Not for the reasons you might expect. For you see, the first twenty or so times I listened to the album I had no idea this song existed. I’m (stupidly) listening on Youtube, and when I tried the official Marillion channel there were so many ‘Video Blocked In Your Country’ tracks that I went for a different upload. For whatever reason, that upload did not include this song whatsoever. It wasn’t until I was glancing at Wikipedia before publishing this post that I saw this song’s name. At first I thought it was just the name of a section of The Hollow Man, only to realise that I’m an idiot and it’s an entirely different song I missed. This may explain some of the confusion I have with parts of the narrative? Everything outside of my commentary of this song I’d already written and was about to publish – this paragraph and the next are being tacked on after writing everything else, meaning I’ve listened to this song only a handful of times compared with the others.
And that’s a pain, because this is a cool song. I love the sweet little melodies… they remind me of a song I can’t quite grasp (is it Iron Maiden’s Infinite Dreams?). I enjoy how much it feels like an 80s one hit wonder ballad. There’s enough of Marillion sound and the Brave sound that it fits on the album, but (and maybe it’s because of how I missed this so many times that it feels like a bonus track than an actual album track) there’s something different about it which makes stand apart from much of the album. It sounds more positive and light, so much so that there’s a touch of Holidays In Exile to it. The songs closes with a Baba O’Reilly feel, some increasingly eerie sounds, and a final darker toned vocal. As I was already committed to posting this thing, I haven’t looked much into the lyrics of this one – is the ‘he’ the person who had been abusing the main character earlier? Is he the ‘he’ I say I’m confused about later in Brave’? Is he genuinely sorry, or sorry because the main character is now rich and he wants a slice? There’s a lot to unpack here…. I have my ideas and they all point to some sick abuse type stuff, so I’ll just leave it there and see what Paul and Sanja have to say about it when I eventually get to the podcast.
Paper Lies startled me in my original listen in the same way that Hard As Love did – sounding like a bouncy fun rock song of the Mike And The Mechanics ilk. There’s something fairgroundy about it – the off kilter guitar harmonics and descending organ keys as H sings ‘paper lies’. While it doesn’t feature the tonal shifts of Hard As Love and is a more straightforward rocker, it’s clearly an acerbic attack on the media rather than whatever silly topic the music conjures. I’m probably reading way too much into things, but I did draw a comparison between the sound effect which opens the song and one of the closing lines of The Hollow Man – it sounds like something rattling when shaken. Sadly, that’s maybe the most interesting thing I can say about the song. Given the bands I regularly listen to, attacks on the media are a dime a dozen and while plenty of the lyrics hit the mark I didn’t feel any new ground had been broken. I didn’t pick up on the ‘Sun…Express… Mail’ until I saw the lyrics spread out in front of me, so that’s fairly amusing, but my struggle came with trying to relate this attack to the main narrative, my best guess that our narrator has made the big time and now has to deal with the tabloid mud-slinging and lies. Part of my issue throughout the album has been that this narrative isn’t explicitly called out so without listening to the podcast or doing my own reading I’m making assumptions based on what other bands have done and, well, what I would do if this were my idea. Girl from a broken home has dreams, runs away, does things she regrets, becomes famous, hounded by the press, contemplates killing herself. If that’s the story, then it makes sense that this is the ‘newspapers and paparazzi are scumbags’ song.
The music never reaches any peak of interest outside of those fairground sounds – assuming those are deliberate, I suppose they highlight the zany silliness and ridiculous nature of the tabloids? It’s a perfectly ordinary rock song which lacks a huge chorus or hook or even a guitar solo to help me pick it out from the crowd and it’s brazen enough to stretch to almost six minutes long. A large chunk of that final minute does set us up nicely for the title track, and its drawn out, waking with the sunrise organ and bagpipe intro. Bagpipes? Scotland? Fish? Is there a thing here? Brave passes the seven minute mark, but justifies its length with greater conviction than Paper Lies. It embraces its slovenly pace with a deliberate atmosphere of peace and solemnity. There’s a large, mostly instrumental section which makes up the bulk of the song – if I’m being completely honest I think this section could have been a minute shorter and still had the same impact. H pulls a Thom Yorke for the higher vocal moments and successfully avoids sounding like current day Thom Yorke, while the rest of the band seemingly take a step back. I’m sure they were all involved, but I didn’t notice. That’s the thing with these soundscape type pieces of music – pieces intertwine and mingle and it’s not so easy to do the traditional dissection of ‘there’s the guitar, there’s the drums, there’s the bass’ etc. It’s a song which is an improvement over Paper Lies but one where I enjoy individual aspects more than the final product.
I’m sure I’ve missed something in the overall narrative, as I’m not sure who the ‘he’ is supposed to be in this song. My first guess when hearing the song was that this was the fickle media coming out in post-mortem support of the main character. After all their attacks, they waited until she was dead to pen a pseudo respectful obituary. We’ve seen it time and again with ‘troubled celebs’, with the media getting their licks in, only to half-heartedly retract and give back-handed praise after the person dies. I don’t think that’s actually what the song is about – something about the lyrics doesn’t feel genuine, there’s a touch of sarcasm… there’s…. something.
The Great Escape is a song in three parts, but even those three parts can be split up into smaller pieces. This is what I expect from Prog – larger songs which move more or less seamlessly through seemingly disparate parts to somehow create a coherent whole. That title is a term used quite a lot as a metaphor for taking your own life. I get it. The first verse of the song is mournful, with music gradually building, and the lyrics are a list of similar metaphors – permanent holiday, dignified walk away, the bright light – those are the metaphors which give the positive outlook on such a decision. With each of those metaphors called out in apparent defiance, the music builds sequentially peaking as the second phase begins. That second phase takes us to an angrier, or at least a louder place. It’s a last gasp cry, a final scream at the people or person who has caused all of this pain, or at least that the narrator is blaming for the pain. That anger fades for the final sequence, which happens to be possibly my favourite part of the whole album In truth, from around the 3.30 mark of this song until the end of the album, it’s perfection. It’s… hard to write about. It’s undoubtedly beautiful and it’s respectful, but it’s also incredibly sad with such precise instrumentation selected to tug on the heartstrings and a fiery guitar solo easily missed, blasting off in the background.
Made Again is a heart-breaking song which eventually turns into something sweeter. It’s just as difficult to write about as The Great Escape if you’ve been through certain things or even if you’ve been on the periphery, or even if you’re a decent human being capable of empathy. These things can keep me up at night, mostly because I’m terrified of them happening in the future, and in a less peripheral way. That’s the power of good music! In lieu of writing about how I felt, I’ll take the half-technical route; the first note I made about the song was premature. I wrote that I wished there had been a slight melodic variation in the vocals. When H sings ‘but I never saw these streets…’ it sounds something like a B/A/G#/A/B/C#/C#/B/B, but I was hoping for a B/A/G#/A/B/F#/F#/E/D#. If you have a keyboard, play those notes to the rhythm of the song and you’ll see what I mean – it just gives that extra tug on the heart. That’s the premature part, because in the very next verse, H does sing something which sounds like the second set of notes above. It’s a testament to the song if that’s my only negative comment. I have gone back and forth on whether I would have preferred the song to end at the two minute mark, just before it transitions into something else. That second part is much more hopeful than the melancholic first section and would have closed the album with a very different vibe. In the end, I think I’d be ‘happy’ regardless of how it ended – either way is equally strong, and at least by having the second part we get both pieces. If it had ended without the second half… well, we wouldn’t have known.
To close out my inane comparisons… In Utero ends with All Apologies which is a similarly toned song – it’s both sad and hopeful in equal doses but without being a song of two distinct parts. It leaves you with a vague feeling of conflict and that good old ‘well I’d better listen again to see if it makes more sense’ twist. If the album had ended on the previous track Tourettes… well that would have been bizarre. Of course there is a hidden track, but the less said about it the better. The Holy Bible takes you through a twisted journey of the worst recesses of the human mind, body, and spirit, ending on the seemingly triumphant anti-everything PCP, a buoyant final punk fuck off to everything – musically speaking at least. It’s a massive leap from the sheer horror of its penultimate track The Intense Humming Of Evil – which, had that been the closer, would have closed the album with an entirely different and more distasteful vibe. With Brave, maybe it is better to offer a certain slant of light at the end.
As seems to be the case with the album, I’m not sure if the hopeful ending is claiming that the narrator has stepped away from the bridge rather than off it, and has taken a positive step back towards living, towards a brand new day. Alternatively, is the positive slant that they have stepped off the bridge and they are now free from the pain of living? The lyrics seem to err on the former, with the words having a resurrection or waking up vibe rather than one of closure or passing on to whatever comes next. Regardless, it’s a strong finish to a strong album.
That seems as good a place as any to summarize my thoughts on the album. Is it dark? Sure, but the music doesn’t always reflect that darkness. There are enough lighter melodies and, for lack of a better term, traditionally commercial pieces that the whole never feels like it’s wallowing or off-putting, aggressive or ugly. Those two albums I keep comparing it to – In Utero and The Holy Bible (and to a certain extant The Wall) – as two of my favourite dark albums… those do often wallow, and they do feature deliberately harsh music, vitriolic lyrics, off-putting sounds and samples, all designed to craft an experience and a mood which won’t leave you in a sunny land of unicorns and rainbows. And yet they are rich with melody, huge choruses, and the occasional lighter moment. Brave lies somewhere in between – I could see a listener enjoying most of the music without knowing any of the context of the album (me) and without paying any attention to the lyrics and be mostly unaware that many of the songs deal with difficult subject matter. The further you delve into the lyrics and the subject matter, the darker the experience becomes, but eventually you reach a point where that experience is enriched by the knowledge and you accept the album, its content, and its nuances.
That leaves us with the never-ending question – is stuff like this ‘enjoyable’? Why do we make, and consume, and enjoy material which is difficult and angry, dark, upsetting, and often not designed to be aurally pleasing? As stated in post one…. I do enjoy this stuff, but I can’t quantify the reasons. There’s a little crumb of truth in whatever reasons you may think, and all of those crumbs add up. Some of us are naturally drawn to this, out of morbid enjoyment, out of a need or desire to understand, out of pure artistic and technical appreciation. Brave is an album I have both enjoyed and appreciated. I’ll take the songs I’ve enjoyed most and add those to my playlists, but I’m sure I’ll listen to the whole thing again. I’m going to close this post now and go listen to the podcast, finally. If I have any more thoughts based off the podcast, I’ll post those separately – this is long enough and nobody reads those anyway. As always, let me know in the comments what you think of the album and make sure to go support the BYAMPOD by giving it a listen yourself!