Nightman Listens To – Marillion – Happiness Is The Road Vol 1 (Part 4)!

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

Greetings, Glancers! We’re at the end of Volume 1. Isn’t that nice? Maybe it’s the fact that the nights are getting shorter, maybe it’s the fact that I’ll soon be turning forty, or maybe it’s the fact that we don’t have too many Marillion albums left to go, but it feels like we’re coming to the end of something. Hopefully Paul and Sanja have something else up their sleeves, or down their socks, once their final word on Marillion has been spoken, but I’ll miss the routine of listening and writing and learning. Will it be a jaunt through a lesser-known Prog favourite of Paul’s? Will it be Sanja’s turn to choose an artist? Will it be the oft-rumoured Manics podcast which has only been mentioned by me? Whatever it is, I’ll be there.

Today though, we wrap up the final few crumbs of Volume 1, starting with Trap The Spark which opens like a more uplifting Radiohead. It’s a very sweet song with a trace of melancholy which may be self-imposed by my associations more than anything, what with H’s vocal ‘woo-hoos’ in the introduction reminding me of the severely underrated band The Delays. The band’s singer, Greg Gilbert was known for his gorgeous falsetto, which often convinced listeners that the vocalist was a woman. I’ve mentioned them while talking about Marillion before, because there are some slight, notable comparisons between the vocals, if not the music. Greg died last year, but was known for his ‘woo hoos’. If you listen to Valentinehopefully you’ll understand some of the similarities I’m hearing even though it’s a much bouncier song.

While Trap The Spark is a beautiful song, it’s another slow song which remains one of the sticking points I’ve had with the album. It has become much less of an issue the more time I’ve spent with the album, but it’s still in the back of my mind. Sometimes it’s hard to share those first impressions. I’m not suggesting this song should be faster, but maybe the album is missing something more up-tempo?

With that out of the way, we can talk about the good stuff. It’s another very atmospheric, very keyboard-led song which is confident in each of the turns it takes. I enjoy the little jazz-shuffle percussion in the first half, I love the tone of the guitar which sounds scratchy, distant, like shooting stars cruising through the atmosphere. As slow as the song is, I appreciate how it gets even slower after the second chorus, bringing the pace back a step and playing the final verse and chorus at that speed. That’s a little twist on what most bands do – usually if there is a shift in pace at the end of a song, things get faster or more frantic.

We get a suitably uneventful guitar solo during this slower portion which leads into a final mainly instrumental section to close the song. As always, there’s a lot of colouring and layering to the texture which really comes to life when you listen with headphones, but much of it still comes through with my trusty laptop speakers. As dreary as I still find the overall feel and tone of this album to be, even though I don’t intend ‘dreary’ to come with the negative connotations you might expect, the production is top notch throughout with Trap The Spark being no exception. The piano sounds are clear and given room to breathe among the swathe of effects and percussion, and H’s vocals are never under threat of being swallowed by the music.

My first thoughts when listening to this song were that the lyrics must be an extension of what has come bef0re; whatever it is you’re looking for in your life, whatever is special is fleeting and you need to trap it while you can. While I still assume that’s the overall intention of the lyrics, upon reading the words that assumption becomes less certain, and the words don’t exactly spark that interpretation. Would you get that intent just from the lyrics if you had never heard any other Marillion song, or knew anything about the band? Reading only the first verse and chorus without that context, the song seems to be talking about love and how it’s nigh on impossible to those most potent feelings forever, while the second verse speaks about someone yearning to be away from where they are currently, back to the places where they can recapture the spark. My only note on the final verse was in reference to ‘unhappinesses’, as I was reminded of the Simpsons episode where Selma tries to adopt a baby from China for the price of ‘10,000 happinesses’.

While I’m reaching with this one, and believe it’s just a coincidence of the song’s structure, I did enjoy how the first line of the chorus has a positive message – ‘Trap the spark and hold it there’, yet is played with minor chords (minor chords known to sound sad or negative), while the second line ‘you can’t, you can’t’ is the negative message but is accompanied by the major chords. Is that something?

A State Of Mind is as close to an up-tempo song as the album gets, even though it’s not much faster than anything else. It’s the little drumstick beats which make it feel faster than it is, it’s the radio friendly chorus which kicks off the dreary shackles. Paul has made reference to some fans not enjoying H’s falsetto – I could see some of those listeners being put by his vocals in the first chorus, but the good news is that he switches to his chest voice in the second chorus and gives it some welly.

I’m not sure what the bird sounds in the intro are supposed to convey, but in general whenever we hear birds in any song we tend to think of a new day or sunset. My best guess is simply that the lyrics mention the sky and looking down on the world… and birds live in the sky and look down? Sometimes these kinds of sound effects can be grating for me, especially if they’re pushed to the forefront of the mix, but it’s subtle enough here that it adds something to the overall vibe. I just don’t know what that something is.

On top of the second chorus kick up the arse, the song attempts to go bigger and anthemic in its final couple of minutes. It’s mostly successful – the interlude with more ‘woo hoos’, with the guitar echoing those ‘woo hoos’, the bass and drums building, all leading into the last chorus section is very cool. I don’t know if it’s a strong enough chorus melodically to get every fist pumping in the crowd, but it feels like it was a song written so that the fans could get their jumping clogs on.

Elsewhere, beyond some slight wavering in the first chorus, the vocals are excellent. H’s voice is smooth and calming in the verses and unbreaking when he hits the big notes, while remaining sumptuous in his emotive delivery throughout. I don’t have much to say about the lyrics, beyond some of the religious tones about creation, looking down from above, spreading a message etc. Who is the ‘he’ who came down from the sky? What is the song saying? What is this State Of Mind which he wants to spread, and which will help those who are ready to KNOW and GROW? As a standalone, the song doesn’t convey anything concrete to me and only holds any substantial meaning when taken alongside the other songs and messages we’ve heard till this point.

We end (kind of) on the centrepiece of the album, the title track, the epic. At ten minutes long, it’s most likely the song which came with the most expectation. If you have a song which is considerably longer than the others, that’s the one which will raise a few eyebrows. While Paul has been referring to this as ‘Her Penis Is The Road’, in all honesty I had a different understanding of the lyrics in my first listens, and it’s one of those ‘once heard/never unheard’ scenarios. In my first listens of the album, I had it on in the background while working, at just let whatever vibes and melodies connect freely with me without putting much effort in from my part. Once the chorus dropped and I heard H clearly singing ‘Auf wiedersehen, La Roache’, I admit to doing a bit of a double take and wondering why Marillion would be writing a dedication to Ken from Coronation Street. Roache. Bill Roache. Ken from Corrie. Do you see?

Seriously though, that’s what H is singing. Sort out that diction. There’s absolutely no way he’s saying ‘road’. It’s clearly Roach. Not that I, as a Manics fan, has any leg to stand on when their lyrics and diction are all but indecipherable and sound like ‘teachairstolenchildpeaseeapuaslongasdareIrightsAREUSED!’ Bonus points for any Manics fans who can guess the song from that.

In a twist on the format, I’ll talk about the lyrics first as they’re arguably more interesting than the music. What I found most interesting is how strong the lyrics are and yet I paid zero attention to them until I Googled them. In most cases when I’m listening to these albums, it’s around the third or fourth listen before I try to focus on the lyrics with any real effort, and only after then do I Google them to see what I got wrong. But with this song in particular, none of the lyrics (apart from Auf Wiedersehen) made any impact on me. Imagine my surprise when I Googled the words and recognised how personal they were, how pertinent to the overall album mindframe, how impactful they are. It makes perfect sense that these lyrics make up the title track. You have to assume that the title track of any album is the symbol, the emblem, the crown jewel of that album. Given all of the themes brokered on every other song, this song feels like a summary of it all while also being an apt thematic closure to the album’s story, while also being a standalone story in and of itself.

I don’t need to go line by line, or verse by verse, through the lyrics; it’s enough to say that it’s a lesson gently preached, not proselytized, a personal testimony which grows with urgency as the music builds. There’s an outline of the lesson in the opening, a bit of personal context, history, and anecdote in the middle where the narrator learns this lesson, with the finale being a repetition of the lesson with a pleading delivery for others to work it out.

In following along with the lyrics as the song plays, I think that some of the vocal effects and mumbling delivery are what distanced me from the lyrics in the first place. I have to careful not to out myself as a hypocrite given the absolute shambles of how The Manics attempted to convey their politics in their early days, but surely you want to be as crisp and clear as possible in your delivery? Vocal effects, odd Brando-as-Corleone-pronunciations… these things muddy the message. Or do they force the reader to go searching for the lyrics so that they can read and understand and therefore the message hits more effectively? Why am I picking on H when I have little issue with how many of my favourite singers are even more obtuse in their vocals – I’m looking at you Tori Amos and James Dean Bradfield? Maybe it’s just the singing out of the side of the mouth thing that pisses me off.

Is it just me, or does anyone else get Twin Peaks vibes from the synth opening? Once the vocals come in, it feels more like a Funeral Service. Or, more accurately, the soundtrack from a movie scene showing the hero’s spirit passing on and gliding upwards towards the light of the heavens. A little sad, a little calm, a little happy. Mostly sad though. Taken with the lyrics, which are mostly of the positive if bittersweet nature, I haven’t decided if the music feels apt or entirely out of place. Maybe it’s that the vocal melody and delivery sounds so forlorn. The vocals are like a groan of despair and goodbyes rather than the happy ‘I’ve just found the answer, guys!’ message which the lyrics promote. To bring up that word again, it’s dreary.

Yet it’s not a dirge. I do like the music, I do enjoy the melodies, the structure of each section, the building of intent, and each band member is at the top of their game. I just find it odd that music is as dreary as a wet Sunday afternoon in the Northern Ireland Winter, from start to finish. Even though the lyrics are positive throughout, even though the music climaxes, and while there is a hefty chorus – none of those feel joyous or euphoric. Much of the song flits between Eminor and Aminor – for long swathes you’re trapped between those two chords and there isn’t a sustained period of the song in which the major key takes the lead. That in itself isn’t usually enough to evoke the dreariness, but combined with the pace of the song, the length of the song, and the fact that the guitars and keyboards don’t offer a counterpoint to the underlying minor chord basis all lead to a gloomy nature.

What else is there to say? H sounds a little like Sting towards the end, while there are a lot of standalone guitar parts there isn’t a blatant solo – perhaps unusual for a lengthy rock song, and much of the guitar, bass, and percussive work feels like a jam -moments improvised in the studio. Which leads nicely into the final song – Half Full Jam. I don’t know if this is a hidden song or how it appears in the original CD, but there isn’t much to it across its six and a slice minutes. It seems to be as the title suggests – a jamming session. Revolving around a single riff, the rest of the guys add their bits and bobs, with H mostly repeating the same handful of words and melodies. There are military marching drums, lots of keyboard faffing, and it gets louder in the middle. It’s fine. Bit of a strange way to close the album if it was meant as the true last song, more understandable if it was one of those ‘fast forward for three minutes and 47 seconds after the last song to find the hidden track’ jobs.

Between You And Me (@BYAMPOD) | Twitter

Over to BYAMPOD and we kick off with a bit of controversy. I must have missed all of this – was it on Facebook? It led to Paul considering if his humour was too inappropriate for some listeners. I mean… everything’s going to be inappropriate for someone. Anyone can find anything offensive. It’s a wider discussion and I’m not qualified for it. I tend to think that life is grim and short and as a species we’re able to find most things funny, for whatever reason. I find humour in most things, though I’m going to be tactful in who I’m dealing with. I have a blog and probably make offensive comments with humorous intent, and there’s probably someone out there who might be triggered or offended or made angry. BYAMPOD probably has a decent-sized audience too, so you’re not going to be able to please absolutely everyone with everything you say. Differences of opinions on songs, some jokes will land, some won’t, others might be too on the mark. It’s more difficult to be tactful when you’re not speaking 1:1, and when you don’t know who the hell might be listening on the other end. So, should we be dull and say nothing at all, should we put certain topics in the bin from the outset, should we offer some sort of warning at the start of an episode if a certain topic is raised, or should we just be ourselves and deal with whatever might happen after the fact? I think most of us who grew up with Digitiser have a fair idea of Paul’s humour, and having spend a few years with the podcast and the Youtube content, it’s more than safe to say that Paul and Sanja are wonderful, socially conscious people who will laugh at themselves before sniggering at others. Sanja then sums it all up better than I’ve written here.

Don’t us Patrons get access to the unbleeped material? Straight into Trap The Spark and Sanja gushing over H’s falsetto. I like it, but then I love high-pitched male vocals. That was, by and large, how I chose to sing back when I did, and most of my favourite male singers are not known for their deep, swinging ballix, husky vocals. Some will like it, some won’t. Paul loves the song, Sanja calls out the guitar work, and Paul highlights the Waltz-like nature of the middle section. Lyrically, Sanja says it recalls Wrapped Up In Time while Paul says there are many call-backs to other songs. It has become an ever more impactful song for the guys given what has happened in their lives recently – the fact that an individuality past, present, and future can be here one moment and gone the next, never to return. It would be the single greatest invention in the history of the world if that spark truly could be trapped. Then Sanja gets confused by a cartoon dog.

Sanja suggests that we should all try to trap whatever sparks we can, even though we might not always get the results we want, and we shouldn’t expect to hold on to those things forever. Paul lists some of the references to other songs, which I never would have picked up on, and that the song boils down to wanting to hold on to something you love. Where does that spark go? Gobbled by Langoliers, into the wind to be breathed in by a billion lungs, or uploaded into an endless universal Cloud where everyone who has ever lived can inter-mingle forever? Any time we get into detailed discussions on grief, I have to bring up The Body – an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Known as one of the finest TV episodes of all time, it’s arguably the best depiction of grief in, well, anything. Do the guys need to make a Buffy podcast? BYUFFPOD?

Paul and Sanja then turn into cats for a few minutes in their cover of State Of Mind. Sanja didn’t love the song when she first listened, but it eventually clicked, and she loves its building nature. Paul has always loved it and it ticks their pop/rock/should have been a hit box. Sanja says it’s a song about us pulling together as a species and moving forwards, while Paul doesn’t have much more to add beyond it feeling quite self-helpy. We then get into the ills of modern society, or society in general as it’s been this way for thousands of years, which takes me to one of my ex (living) girlfriends who did indeed drop off the grid and currently cycles about Europe with a tent, selling her arts and crafts and helping on farms and building houses. I’d like the travelling part. Helping people by doing stuff? I’m too lazy. NICE LITTLE PENIS. LITTLE?

At least it’s not just me who calls out H singing in a funny voice, and Sanja highlight’s Mark’s great work. She notes that there’s so much going on, lots of little bits adding to a ‘cosmos of sound’. Paul reads an H quote where he says much of the song was a jam – interesting that I called that out in my coverage of the song as it definitely sounds improvised, but I didn’t think it actually was. The song was a grower for Paul and while it’s not a favourite, he likes what it does for the whole album. As such, he doesn’t have much to say about the music or the lyrics. Sanja says the song is a summary of the album, and of H’s experience with the Power Of Now book. Looks like they’re saving Half-Full Jam for next week, along with some other bits. I doubt I’ll post about that, but who knows.

As always, do the likes and shares and listens and comments!

Tell it like it is!

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