Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Happiness Is The Road Vol 1!

Marillion – Happiness Is The Road, Volume 1: Essence (2008, CD) - Discogs

Greetings, Glancers! It feels like an age since I last typed a single word about Marillion. An age in which we’ve seen one Monarch replaced by another, several PMs chewed up and spat out, and probably some other important world events I’ve failed to pay attention to. Paul and Sanja have crept up, leaped on, and sprinted away from their hundredth episode and are currently careening onwards towards… well, let’s just say that their Manic Street Preachers podcast is inevitable at this point.

It has been quite the journey; entertaining and enlightening in equal measure. I’ve learned about a band I had heard of but knew next to nothing about and beyond the music, it has been just as enjoyable sharing in someone’s passion. It feels like there’s not enough of that in the world.

I have been busy. Real life busy. I made a post a while back about being burnt out with music – writing about it, listening to it, and wanting to get back into my movie posts. I don’t know if this malaise has passed into my feelings on Happiness Is The Road or if I would have felt this way regardless, but one word kept cropping up again when I was doing my early listens of the album – dreary.

Calm down. Let me try to explain. When I first blasted the album, it was through Youtube. I was unaware, but it played both Vol 1 and Vol 2 as if it were a single album; songs were played out of order and the length and breadth of the thing was as exhausting as it was exhaustive. Too many songs followed a similar pace and tone, and too many lacked the honey dripping banshee call of Marbles. It felt like a big, big album with not a lot to say. The album made me not want to talk about it. I was also in a place where I wasn’t ready for a sprawling brute. I wanted music which would slap me about, kick me to the ground, steal my wallet, then do a Rumpelstiltskin dance beside my bleeding body, but instead I got over an hour of music akin to roaming through a barren, hungover town on a Sunday after being stood up for a date. An oddly specific reference.

So I took a step back. I listened to other music. I knew I was almost certainly wrong in my initial assessments. I listened to BYAMPOD and learned that Happiness is actually two distinct albums rather than a double. That made things more palatable. I updated my USB for car journeys with my favourite Marillion songs. I asked the neighbour’s son when he was going to fix my fence after he left the handbrake off and reversed into my garden. I discovered that my Amazon Prime subscription has a lot of Marillion music so started using it instead of Youtube, and in doing so I was able to split Vol 1 and 2 as intended and found out the true running order of the songs. I also found out that the album is like 60 quid on CD – what’s that about? I finally was in the place where I could listen to the album without being a dick. Or, less like a dick than usual.

Dreamy Street is, not for the first time, a brief and atmospheric toe-dip opener. Like much of the album to come, it’s a keyboard and synth showcase. It feels sullen and downbeat, light on lyrics and percussion. If you listen closely, some of the background synth underneath the central keyboard line seems to be playing a drifting A/E/D/C# descent, which is very similar to the G/D/C/B vocal melody later in Wrapped Up In Time (I thought it was the same until I played both on the kids’ keyboard and noticed the difference, so I’m leaving in the rest of this paragraph to show what I’d originally written). It’s very faint and played in a different rhythm which makes me think it may not even be intentional. But these are smart musicians and producers so I can only assume was purposeful – on its own it doesn’t add anything to Dreamy Street itself and those four chords don’t relate to the bulk of Dreamy Street’s chord structure in any way so it feels like it was added as a level of texture and foretelling.

I suppose that’s interesting, which is great because I don’t have a lot else to say about the song. It is dreary and makes me think of empty, wet streets rather than dreams. The keyboards do one thing, the vocals do another, and the bass bumps along underneath at various points. It sets a tone but one of unease. That’s something I’m likely projecting on to the song with rather than anything that was intended by the band, but this sort of loose playing always leaves me with a sense of unease – three instruments doing their own thing without really complementing each other, and making that be how they complement each other.

As is frequently the case, I made up my own incorrect lyrics; ‘I had to strain this monkey inside of me’, for example. Like the music, the lyrics form a mood piece. A dude in a half-conscious state, chilling in the sunshine. If there’s one word which this song and this album does not evoke for me, it’s ‘sunshine’. Music that I equate to sunshine either has to sound laid-back and relaxed, or light, summery, and bouncy like The Beach Boys. We can rule out the latter immediately, but I can’t say that Dreamy Street fits the former either – it feels too forlorn, introspective, mundane while to me a relaxed chill song should evoke very little beyond sitting, smiling, and tanning. No idea why I suddenly got so stuck on this completely irrelevant point, but there you go. As you can see, I made zero notes on the lyrics beyond them creating a mood.

This Train Is My Life wouldn’t be a song I’d accuse of being dreary if I heard it in isolation. It builds and it shifts and it peaks, working well as a standalone. I think the dreary tag still somewhat applies because it’s another mid-paced song in a mid-paced album. But it’s a good, mid-paced song which recalls similar songs from Marbles. It’s Marillion’s vibe, happy to sit in third gear. That isn’t meant as the insult it sounds like, but while I like the song there is a touch of cruise control to it.

For overt positives, the production is stellar with a lot of clarity and a lot of little quirky pieces flitting around under the hood. Even the vocal mix is playful, with H harmonizing randomly in a line here, a moment there. H sounds at his best once he steps it up in the second half, and I appreciate how the guitar solo comes at the tail end rather than the middle, in which we instead get a quiet section with much of the lush instrumentation driven out. Even though the song doesn’t pick up the pace, the peaks it reaches towards the end make it feel celebratory if not quite anthemic.

Before I talk about how much I enjoyed the lyrics for This Train Is My Life, I do have to call out one line. Or one word, specifically, and I’ll be curious if Paul or Sanja mention it too. Stroby. Stroby. Even typing it makes me a little uncomfortable. Stroby stations… we couldn’t have come up with some different? I know this is just me and how certain words give me the icky, but it feels clunky and out of place (he says after writing many un-edited and ill-planned paragraphs). Yes, that one caught my eyes and ears.

Elsewhere, lyrically, very good. Evocative, brings to mind a sense of movement, of fleeting experience and chaos. You can clearly read it as the life of a touring rock star and as a metaphor for the sickening, ungraspable pace of time we all feel slipping by senselessly. In many ways it’s a perfect lyric for explaining that shadow mood I’ve talked about in previous posts. The music doesn’t fully capture that mood, but the lyrics do. When I try to explain that mood, that vibe, that tone to someone, the best way I’ve been able to articulate it is by saying that it comes from all of the late night car trips I would go on as a child – I would be half-sleeping, half watching the world and its shadowy roads drift by, the air heater blowing in my face, some song teasing me to dream in the background. Far from being the unique mood I thought it was when I was young, it’s something most of us feel at some point and H puts it into words beautifully here, while also touching on companionship and the other themes I’ve mentioned. ‘Parallel lines/parallel lives’ was the standout line when I first listened – even more so once I put the other lyrics together – a concise, snappy comparison which says a great deal in a few words.

Between You And Me (@BYAMPOD) | Twitter

On to BYAMPOD then. I notice as I listen to their hilarious intro (introad?) that I didn’t really talk about the artwork. It’s jagged. Like warring aerials. Like satellites trapped in barbed wire. That’s about it. Her penis is the road? I had my own mistranslation.. but we’ll get to it when we get to it. Apparently, the album is and isn’t about the destination and/or/but not the journey. With that confirmed, we talk about dead mice. My cat keeps them outside, thankfully. I fully expect to see an animated man with a man-sized thumb coming up in an upcoming Digi.

Between the previous episode and this, we learn that the album was a mixture of jams and songs recorded for previous albums. The band gave blog updates as they were recording. I like that approach for some bands, it feels like you’re invited to peer through the curtain. For other bands, I prefer the mystique is maintained. It was during these blog posts that the band confirmed that Vol 1 was a concept album – not something which was apparent to me in my early listens. Paul has mentioned Rother’s guitar sound a few times in previous episodes – I’ve early Asylum Satellite a few times now and I don’t have any issue with the sound, if it’s what I’m thinking of. It just like it has a lot of a chorus effect on it. The band also fully embraced the digital creation process, chopping and changing and experimenting as needed.

Paul comments on the relative simplicity of the lyrics, and how it fits with the theme of the album, and further how it fits with The Power Of Now. There’s a lot of grief in the album, something I picked up on more than there being an overall theme – sometimes we bring our own lives to an album, picking up on stuff that may not even be there, or heightening what is there.

Dreamy Street apparently sounds like the Eastenders theme. I didn’t catch that at all, so I’ll have to listen. I did pick up on the Wintery feel. That’d be the bells. Sanja connects the lyrics to Buddhist symbolism – tea ceremonies and monkey minds. They are more positive on the song that I am and also feel like the mood it conveys is more positive – why then did I find it so grim? Maybe it’s because I don’t drink tea?

On to This Train Is My Life, which goes back to Marbles. The end section dates back to Holidays or Brave. So it is a cut up song of different pieces, like I called out above. No, wait. That was Essence where I mentioned that. That’s in the next post. But I can see it for this one too. The guys like how the sound captures the feel of a train journey, and how much of an improvement…how different the production sounds here, contrasted with Somewhere Else. Sanja likes the propulsion of the song – there’s a tension which builds and is never static. Paul ties it back to the themes of the album and the book which inspired it. Nobody’s mentioned stroby stations yet. Sad face. The life of a touring professional must be bizarre. It’s something I’ve always craved though, to some extent. I’d wager most of us have an inherent wanderlust. When I was younger, I loved the idea of being a long-distance truck driver. I think I wrote an easy about it in Primary School – one of those ‘What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up’ assignments. I loved the idea of not being attached to anyone or anywhere. Always on the road. Staying up late. Seeing the world pass by. Listening to music and following no rules but my own and the road, man. I was too young to be concerned with bills and delivery deadlines to meet. Now, I’m content to never leave the house. Still, there’s always that pull.

While I was writing all that, the guys were pouring their own hearts out. Go listen. There’s an H quote about the origin of the song. Stroby stations! I don’t have much else to say, so I’ll just add how cool I think it would be if all railway lines were accompanied by foot and cycle paths. Think about how easy it would be to travel from place to place! Ignore the practicalities (and safety concerns) of that becoming reality, but I like the idea of cycling down to my local train station and then following the train tracks in to the city or wherever. Yo Elon, get on it!

We close with the guys saying how much they love the album. I don’t think I’m at that level. I haven’t given it the headphone treatment yet, and I’m almost always doing something else when I’m listening to music these days, but I’ve given it plenty of loops and it’s good. I like it. I don’t love it. Maybe I’ll get there one day. Until then, share your thoughts on the album below and go listen to BYAMPOD and let Paul and Sanja know how you feel!

Tell it like it is!

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