Greetings, Glancers! On my first rambling Marbles post I only managed to cover the first two songs – that’s the problem when you have free reign to waffle on about nothing with nobody to smack you around the chops and tell you to stop. We’ll get through more today, don’t you worry. More songs that is, less waffle.
We get back on track with Genie, a smooth song which sets and cements some of the childlike themes and sounds of the album. It was around this point that I began drawing thematic parallels between Marbles and Misplaced Childhood – were those intentional or am I seeing connections that aren’t there? Genies is a lovely pop ballad with a sweet vibe and sentiment. Outside of all that ‘boxsh’ nonsense, of course, which I won’t mention again. Look, plenty of my favourite singers do weird shit I can’t stand. I’ll get over it.
After a brief swirly intro, we get a novel off-kilter lead riff which sounds like it begins on the off beat, like the halfway through the riff if that makes sense. Tubular Bells does this, for example. It lends an unusual atmosphere to the song’s opening, but perhaps the most unusual aspect is how it differs from the rest of the song. The song is less than five minutes, but it goes through more transitions and moods than plenty of songs with a much longer run time. The first transition sets the tone for the rest of the song, coming before the first minute closes as the finger-picked riff ends on a transitional chord smoothly leading into a softer, ethereal interlude. The keyboards, guitar, and vocals in this section are particularly lovely – evoking childhood images of peace, calmness, and love. There are some backing vocals here, which I think are from a mystery woman – in any case, they had another layer of sweetness and warmth. This portion of the song reminded me a lot of Radiohead’s Let Down in terms of soundscapes and how much is packed into a short timeframe without compromising on quality or feeling messy.
We then enter what is the traditional chorus – the traditional big moment of any song – and it does what a chorus should, peaking and releasing the emotions while begging you to chant along. It’s not a traditional structure for a pop song by any means – that chorus only coming at the three minute mark and isn’t followed by the previous verse breaks – yet it feels like it could have been a hit. The chorus is anthemic and euphoric, and all of the build up to it both heightens the impact and is strong enough to stand on its own. Even without the chorus it would be a good song. Although it does have warmth and innocence, there’s a subtle hint of sadness mixed in, possibly the sadness of looking back to childhood, and that sadness continues into the church organ intro of the next song.
Before moving onto The Only Unforgivable Thing, we should cover Genie’s lyrics to assess if the nostalgic feeling comes only from the music. It feels like the key to unlocking the lyric is understanding what the ‘genie’ is, and why letting it out of the box has caused so much trouble. It feels like there could be hundreds of interpretations of what the genie is and what the song means – genies are magical creatures typically known for granting wishes, sometimes coming with the caveat of being careful of what you wish for because you might get it. So, by letting the genie out is that a metaphor for hope turning sour? Hoping for a positive outcome but the reality being worse? Are genies known for being kept in boxes – the use of box made me think more of Pandora. The ‘scared of everything I am’ line feels more like it’s saying that you’re opening yourself up to someone, unveiling who you are but being terrified of what this could do to your relationship. By the end of the song, the recurring yells of ‘I let the genie out of the box’ feel more regretful and emotional and pained when compared with the resigned opening line. It certainly doesn’t correlate to my ideas of sweetness and light.
The middle portion of the song, the dream section, is all about escapism and being away from the current reality – something we know H is fond of writing about. This vain hope fades as he gets older, but then the tone shifts with the appearance of ‘she’. The ‘she’ you could take as a literal person – in an ordinary pop song it’s the appearance of a ‘she’ who tends to turn the man away from a life of misery and onto the path of love, but that isn’t what happens here. Is ‘she’ the dream of escape, personified? Is ‘she’ the genie? Is ‘she’ the black dog on H’s shoulder, holding him back and feeding on his fear? Is she a force for good or bad? I don’t think the song answers this, because H, or whoever the character here is supposed to be, genuinely doesn’t know. They’re as confused as we are. She seems to be encouraging him towards the end, almost saying ‘you have all this goodness locked up inside you, you can make a difference, you can give a lot of happiness to a lot of people if you’ll let them share in that attic of treasure’. But H can’t let it out? Or he has let it out already and it’s the genie? I’ll let Paul tell us what it’s actually all about.
I’m happy to go on the record and say that the organ intro to The Only Unforgiveable Thing is one of the best things the band has done. It strikes that blend of melancholy and beauty I’m always on the hunt for. Thankfully when it fades it is replaced by another lovely, solemn song rather than losing any momentum or becoming something unrelated and less interesting. By this point in the album I was already considering it the band’s masterpiece. These few songs in, it felt like all of the ideas which worked and didn’t work, all of the effort and planning and years of writing and touring, had finally managed to coalesce into that lightning in a jar moment which all bands crave. Every note seems perfectly placed, every melody feeding the emotion and creating a precise connection between the band and the listener. As much as I griped about the little things, there wasn’t any true misstep.
However, am I the only one reminded by Pink Floyd’s Learning To Fly? Only the opening verse – something about the interplay between rhythm, mood, and the bass. I’m not a huge fan of Learning To Fly – I think this is the better song, but I did hear comparisons however momentary. If I have any notable negative to mention, it’s that I don’t think the song will have as long-term an appeal for me as Genie will, and that may be down to it being both airy and fairly long. I have no issues with longer songs, no issues with airy, soothing songs – but gluing both aspects together accentuates the negative aspects of length and the airy atmosphere. I’m good with it for now, but maybe in the future I’ll feel the song is too stretched – too many additional lines which don’t add much, too many repetitions of the song name. The tonal shift in the middle perhaps comes too late and doesn’t last long enough. The guitar work in this section is great though, functional, overlaying the jangling celebratory riff with some simple but effective high squeaking solo work, before relaxing into a more traditional yet equally simple and effective solo.
I think the song features some of H’s best lyrical work, assuming it wasn’t written by that other fella. They strike the balance between being vague but open for interpretation, matter of fact yet poetic, and cryptic while talking about everyday observable things. It’s quite similar to Genie in that it’s taking the idea of some thing which always seems be lurking, either close to or as a part of the narrator, and presenting that thing to be harmful. Do we know what that thing is? A secret which can’t be shared? Typically in music, the thing is a proxy for addiction or depression or anger. Here, it’s an ever present, an omniscient haranguer of weighty proportions, one which notices the small things which are prone to bring a person down (bloody English weather) while mocking one’s attempts at getting on with the basics (clean my teeth). It certainly feels like the terms people suffering from depression use.
I don’t have a decent answer for ‘Will no one help the boys/who exist only as voices’. Is this talking about people with depression – I can’t say they’re depicted as helpless and voiceless because it says they are only voices. So I can’t adequately make that fit my narrative. The ‘lost the stars and skies’ piece seems simple enough and would align with Genie – settling for what you have rather than trying to achieve your dreams. There are threads running through the album, tying ideas and themes together, with the Marbles interludes acting as the musical connective tissue – it’s a very neat transition from the end of The Only Unforgivable Thing into Marbles li.
Marbles Ii is… better than part 1. I can’t be too down on it because it is connective tissue acting like a complete song. It’s the handshake between two people kicking off a discussion, not the discussion itself. While it’s not the powerful Presbyterian handshake squeezing the power of the Lord into your palm, it’s not the limp, clammy clutch with the coughing new boyfriend of your ex. I’ve only experienced one of those, I’ll let you guess which. The biggest difference between Part 2 and Part 1 is that I can see Part 2 being expanded into a full blown standalone, good song. This has moments I would like to see extended beyond what seems like an idea or a moment, with some of the rougher edges ironed out or omitted.
The jingle jangle instrumentation and rhythm is all crafted to be childlike and similar to a lullaby, even the vocals seem to be performed in a childlike fashion, giving away to the more interesting and traditional middle section. The lyrics follow part 1 and the flashbacks to childhood – playing marbles was the favourite game, the marbles more valuable than diamonds. I had my own version of marbles when I was young – it involved marbles and my toy cars with the marbles being aliens/zombies/monsters/bad guys, and the cars being survivors in some post apocalyptic wasteland. You would give the cars a push, then flick the marbles to try to hit the cars – the winner being whoever got the most cars to the finish line. I played it by myself, so I always won. And lost.
Next time, we’ll tackle another of the epic songs on Marbles and by that point Paul and Sanja will have started their discussion on the album. It’s currently 2nd February and they’ve finished their last Fish episode, so I’ll probably do an additional summary post covering their thoughts on the first few tracks of Marbles. Till then, give the album a go if you haven’t already, and make sure to check out BYAMPOD too!