Greetings, Glancers! Apologies for that monstrosity of a title, but Marillion really should have known when recording this album that decades later there would be a Podcast doing a deep dive on each of their albums, splitting each album into multiple episodes, and that there would be a blogger writing posts about each of those episodes. In naming their albums, they have given such eventualities no consideration. They did give names to each of Volumes though, right? What’s Volume 1 – Essence? I could make that my title instead. But I won’t. We’re just going to have put up with Vol 1, parts I-IV. It’s all very Prog.
The good news is that I’d already written all of my song commentary by the time the first BYAMPOD ep on Happiness Is The Road came out, so it is just a matter of slicing up the content into multiple posts, and adding my comments on the BYAMPOD episodes themselves. My work is done until Volume 2!
Essence was a bit of a puzzle during my early listens, that dreary tone clouding what turned out to be a very fine mini-Prog epic. There’s the confidence of the Marbles era shining through, it feels very The Bends era Radiohead inspired in places, Kid A in others, and it covers a mish mash of styles from Space Rock to Gospel. It’s one of those songs which, if you skip about randomly to different points in the song, you’ll encounter a different sound or mood. Once I got a feel for it, I questioned whether this is one of songs which fans have accused of being a cut and paste of different parts the band came up with in various jam sessions. I could certainly see that being the case and I wouldn’t argue against anyone who says it feels disjointed. I think it flows quite well between these different sections. To make it feel less disjointed they could have spent longer on a few of the individual sections, or could have done some sort of musical call-backs or a wraparound piece at the end to connect the close of the song to an earlier section. Hell, even breaking the song’s name out into different parts may have countered some of these feelings – Essence Parts I-IV. In any case, it’s not something I had any issue with, and I didn’t feel like any of the transitions were forced or jarring.
It’s not a guitar heavy song, at least not obviously. This is closer to the experimental soundscapes of Radiohead and some of Devin Townsend’s early solo work. It’s more noticeable for the work Mark Kelly brings, working in clear tinkling piano and foreboding synth to shift the mood from one place to the next. It’s dense on the percussive side, with the traditional drums bulked out with different cymbal sounds and clangs. Rothery isn’t left out in the cold, adding some venom and edge to some of the harsher sections.
Lyrically, taken with the songs we’ve already covered, Essence confirms a bit of a running theme in the album. One which aligns with the album’s name. It seems to be about connections. Authenticity. Finding your way to happiness, to something real. Negotiating the distractions we encounter, drowning out the noise, and allowing the essence of our needs and meaning to come into focus. ‘Essence’ becomes a mantra.
I couldn’t avoid lyrical comparisons to Trainspotting and Choose Life. Very different songs of course, and very different meanings. I was half expecting Fish as Ewen McGregor or Ewen McGregor as Fish to creep in at some point just to say ‘choose life’ in a thick Scottish accent. The lyrics and music flow together nicely, the climax and celebratory ending coinciding with the lyrical Nirvana. It’s sadly all too rare that lyrics and music intertwine like this, but when it happens it can be glorious.
Wrapped Up In Time is the highlight of the album for me. It’s the one which nails the combination of melody and emotion that I crave. That’s not to say I don’t have a few nit-picking issues with it – the unnecessarily sudden ending, and the early noughties digital drum loop in the ‘there’s an echo of them’ section which was prevalent in 90% of boy/girl band music of the era, for example. But on the whole, it’s what I’ve come to want in a Marillion song; potent melodies sung heartfelt over ethereal soundscapes.
It’s another Mark Kelly showcase, trading in atmospheric beats with Ian Mosely. The intro is almost like a call and response between the two, and between the different layers of keyboards and what I assume to be various bells and Glockenspiel type instruments. This gives a suitably chilling mood, evoking vistas of the frozen tundra, icicles giving way to the warmth of the vocals and the passing of time from Winter to Spring.
For my money, the melodies are among the most tender and heartfelt the band has ever done. So much so that I’d love to hear an acoustic take with the intro and outro stripped away or replaced – just the vocals with a guitar or piano. That’s not to dismiss the start and end which do a great job of setting the tone for what’s to come, but when I find a new song that I love (particularly a dense one), I want to hear a few different versions of it and see how it changes based on the approach. A live version, an acoustic version, a demo etc. I get the impression that an acoustic take of Wrapped Up In Time could be special, slightly slowed down and leaving the emotion to run free without distraction. Fuck it, I’m googling it now. Ha! I see a Less Is More option… that’s one of the live albums Paul has mentioned a few times. Listening to the Less Is More version now… not the approach I was hoping for, too slowed down and seems to be bringing out the Gospel and Blues side rather than the… well, the purity of the original. I see a few live versions out there too, some stripped back, but these seem to follow the Less Is More style. Luckily when you can’t find what you’re looking for you can just do it yourself – my daughter’s pink, half-size acoustic guitar happens to be sitting behind me here and if I grab it I can… boom! Yes, it works well even if I do compliment myself for an impromptu rendition no-one will ever hear.
Back to it. It’s the lyrical version of The Langoliers, without the furry monsters. The past is gone. This is a bit of a theme with H and it’s clearly something he’s struggled with. That theme ties in with the whole album – the importance of living in the moment and not being trapped by what did or didn’t happen, or plagued by what ifs. Which is cool, because it’s something I’ve always struggled with. The past is most definitely a prison. I find myself trapped there all the time. I often dream of the past and don’t want to wake up. It’s horrible. It’s addictive. It ensures that regret becomes an insidious part of your being. While regret is ultimately worthless, I rank it highly in how trustworthy I find someone. If you claim to have no regrets, I probably won’t waste my time with you. All of this may explain why I enjoyed the song so much, as I feel and understand what he’s saying and what’s behind it.
To read the lyrics straight from the page, with no context and no music, they’re a bit of a mishmash of insight and mumbling repetition. ‘Like the past in a present’ is excellent, ‘the time for them has gone and their time has gone with them’ is less so. The repetitions of ‘echo’ is particularly affecting, especially for those of us who have a person in the past whose echoes reverberate in the present. The closing line works well, even in context of the abrupt end to the song. If it had been me, I’d have removed a lot of the space at the end of the song and made sure that Liquidity flowed immediately after. Or just had Liquidity be a part of Wrapped Up In Time rather than its own thing.
We start the latest episode of BYAMPOD with some of the carnage we’ve come to expect, with Paul and Sanja sharing some insight into their Supermarket activities, namely, talking to themselves and getting lost. I’ve been there. Then lots about Meat Loaf. Then we get into Essence, which Paul holds in very high esteem. He thinks it’s magical. It wasn’t… super immediate for me, but it was always one which stood out to me in my first listens of Vol 1 and 2. As mentioned above, it took a while to unravel for me, which is a little strange because it’s often the more complex songs which do speak to me with immediacy. I enjoy Wrapped Up In Time more, but Essence isn’t far behind. Paul is positive when he says it’s their best bit of Beatles referencing – we know the band has call-backs to The Beatles, but this is the best example of them doing that through the Marillion lens.
Sanja says it isn’t the most convoluted lyrically – it does what it says on the tin, if the tine was a book called The Power Of Now. Having not read that book (or tin), I’ll take the guys’ words for it, but the lyrics do come across as very Self-Help-Spiritual. Sanja reads an excerpt. I can’t say it’s my sort of thing, but I’m sure it helps people. When I focus on the inside of my body, I hear gurgles. Then fart. A six-minute song of fart noises is probably ill-advised, even if it were accompanied by a Rothers solo.
The guys then have a bit of a philosophical discussion inspired by the lyrics, and by their pasts. It’s an album which feels very personal and has only become more prescient over time. We are strange creatures, social, needy, yet essentially here for personal survival and perpetuation of the species. We find ourselves (many of us at least) in the safest point in time for our species, we’re aware of our own mortality, we’re creative, thinking, feeling beings and yet we often do things which actively harms ourselves and those around us because it’s easier, because we’re broken, or because we’re we can’t see any other choices available. I’ve never done any counselling whatsoever, but I spend a lot of time in my own head, and I’ve read plenty of philosophy over the years. And I observe human behaviour, including my own, often from a passive place. I’ve no idea what people would class me as when it comes to these conversations, and I likely change from day to day. I think… we’re here, and then we’re not. We’re born in a specific ecosystem with no say in the matter, we grow, we learn, we love, we hurt… and then we’re nothing.
I’d love there to be something more, something akin to The Good Place, something like our own personal version of Heaven where we just continue. Not the Christian version of Heaven, or any other from any religion I’m aware of, because those all sound fucking horrific; but an existence where we see who we want to see, we do what we want to do, and we can choose to opt out if we want to. I think the only honest answer is ‘I don’t know’. It’s the pain and injustice of the world which often spurs these thoughts – how can it be fair that we only get this one shot? How can it be that we spend this time learning and loving and experiencing, only for it to all be snatched away. How can we intimately know someone, only for them to be utterly gone? Without doxing myself, without meaning any disrespect by writing about it, and hopefully without upsetting people but, a child was killed in my town last week. Ostensibly on the road I live on. An accident. An utterly horrific, unthinkable accident. I have a son who is the same age. How can such a thing be allowed to happen? It’s a small town, so if you don’t know someone directly, you’ll at least have met or seen them in passing. Everyone inevitably will turn something so tragic inwards. I’m not sure how I could go on. I don’t want to even consider it, but here we are. My best guess is that I would just be done with it all. There would be nothing left. I’d spend what little would be left of my existence in complete rage and devastation. None of this should ever happen. But it does. It’s the world we’re in.
I’ve always been morbid, cynical, some strange hybrid between realist, pessimist, and goblin-esque laughing optimist. But I have a family now, something I never expected to happen. I am loved. So I’ll do what I can, in the now and in the future. I’ll follow my own tenets; Don’t be a dick, don’t hurt anyone, try to minimize the harm you may do to others and yourself over the years while maximizing the good. Try to improve yourself, try to understand everyone else. I respect everyone else’s beliefs as long as they are not demonstrably harmful, and I have zero interest in converting others to what I belief because, again, nobody who’s being honest can say they have the answers. I’m not defined by any of this and it’s not something I choose to consider or spend much time thinking about anymore. I look for no rewards and I accept that in a very short time the world will move on, and I’ll no longer be a part of it. If you are in the future and are reading this and my blog has inexplicably gone viral and is making shitloads of Euro-Credits or whatever the currency is, please make sure most of that makes its way into the pockets of my descendants, assuming they still wear clothes and are not assholes.
We move into discussion on Wrapped Up In Time by continuing these threads – the tangibility of thoughts, memories, even people. Echoing my Langoliers joke, the guys question whether the past exists in any real sense. Technology has helped with that conundrum somewhat – we have physical records of our collective and personal pasts, and any denial of that leads into fruitless Matrix type discussions and Solipsism. I can understand Sanja’s comment on stressing over failing to remember something as simple as a room you once spent a lot of time in. If you were to ask me to describe my current bedroom, I couldn’t tell you anything beyond the fact that there’s a bed and a pile of books beside it. But that’s only because I rarely notice or retain that sort of information. I absolutely stress myself over the loss of memories when it comes to conversations I’ve had or people I’ve known, to the extent that I’m genuinely not sure if certain things happened or not. I have a semi-recurring, semi-lucid dream about a girl who I have convinced myself that I once knew, but upon waking I can’t place her in my timeline. It’s always the same girl, and the dreams are not fanciful. They’re just plain conversations, involving other people I absolutely do know in places I’ve been, and she’s there and is somehow important to me. But I’ve no idea who she is. I can only assume I’ve invented her, and my brain is confusing itself through some weird sleep nonsense. And yet, everything about it all feels just like a memory. The other guy who sometimes shows up dressed in suit and Top Hat and who screams at me with an unnaturally large mouth – no idea who he is, but he can fuck all the way off.
Speaking of lost memories, I get the impression that I’ve posted the following quote from Angel on my Marillion posts before. It’s a quote which I’m conflicted by, because it sounds too on the nose, too pseudo-philosophical-without-really-saying-anything, too much like it’s playing with the conventions of language to sound smarter than it actually is. But it still applies when we’re talking about finding our own meaning. If nothing we do matters, then all that matters is what we do. It’s an encapsulation of the show’s ethos – to fight when there’s something worth fighting for, even when loss is a certainty – but you can apply it to life too. As you’ve likely understood from the waffling above, I don’t think there’s any grand meaning for us all as a species. We’ve just evolved to an apparent higher level of understanding than other species, to the extent that we fight over oil, and argue over which scent of air freshener would go best in the car, and do Tik Toks while the rest of the animal kingdom thinks of shelter, food, surviving, and mating. The time is short, to quote another book. Find your own meaning, what gives you purpose, find others who willingly share in it. Start a podcast!
We get into the discussion on the music, with both guys saying that while the song takes a while to get started, the introduction is suitably atmospheric and fitting. Paul calls out the strength of the drums here, which I felt was one of the only downsides of the song, with Sanja saying the beat was like a heartbeat and the guitar was urgent. Paul says he rediscovered this song during the Podcast run, and that it’s a bit of a forgotten gem so far from where the band started. There’s definitely a lot of heart and soul in the song and in H’s performance. I’m surprised it’s underrated as it very quickly stood out to me. But this is my sort of thing.
Sanja and Paul both complement the lyrics and relate it to their recent experiences. That’s the power of good music and good writing. While a song can be personal, we can feel it. We can make it personal for ourselves. We all process music and lyrics in our own way. We all grieve in our own way. It’s always the same and it’s always different, whatever that means. We hear H’s description of the song, which is quite poetic but reminded me of those old cartoons about dead animals being sucked up to heaven in a certain slant of light. Because I always have to ruin something poignant with a silly joke. Bums!
Well, that episode and this post took many unexpected turns. Apologies if it comes across as crap on the screen – I’m much better having a drunken chat about this stuff rather than writing about it. Well, I wouldn’t say ‘better’. More that my spur of the moment ramblings are easily excused and absorbed vocally instead of written. If anyone wants to buy me a pint and hear me ramble, that would be nice. At the very least, drop a comment, go listen to the album and Podcast yerselves, and wait for Paul and Sanja’s Meat Loaf (sadly not Manics) Podcast which will be called Hot Pod Tootie. There’s a deep cut for ya.