Greetings, Glancers! We find ourselves in a post Marbles landscape and I fear there will be some sort of downturn in quality. Marbles was such a strong album, such a statement, that it would be impressive to follow it up with an album of similar high quality. The only thing I know about this album is that it features ‘the steamer’. I think. Most Toys is meant to be the big bad, right? I’ll be looking forward to hearing that, and it inevitably becoming my bestest Marillion song.
Making presumptuous gleamings from the artwork and the album title, it seems reasonable to assume we’re in for another batch of songs about escape, running away, being anywhere than here. I like the creamy blue hue of the album artwork, and the… I actually don’t know what those things are called. Are they telescopes? Standy-up binoculars? I’m sure there’s a proper name, but whatever they are I associate them with movies set in New York or some other metropolis, usually making up a brief moment in some first date montage scene. I’ve only ever seen a few of these around Northern Ireland – the only certainty in using one being your immediate infection with various diseases. There’s one high on the hills in Belfast Zoo, but I can’t think the view would be improved by using it rather than your own eyes. I love Belfast Zoo, certainly one of the most gorgeous spots in the country, and great for a hike. If I could be somewhere else right now, that’s where I’d want to be. Lets do this.
Somewhere Else is a downturn in quality from Marbles. We’ll get into the details, but if I can begin with something of a conclusion, it feels like little more than a collection of songs. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – most albums are – but this is Marillion we’re talking about, a band we’ve come to expect more from even when they’re not doing an overt Concept album. There are tonal, thematic, and musical threads which make it feel coherent rather than disparate, but that sense of it being a collection of songs instead of something more is one I kept returning to. Admittedly that could be a consequence of spending so much time with Marbles and a deliberate act by the band – I have no issues with an artist wanting to distance themselves creatively from their immediately previous work by doing something different, and this is something which Marillion has done repeatedly. It would be unfair to equate this to Marbles or expect it to be Marbles 2.0, but an upside of not being another Marbles is the cut to the running time – it’s a less exhaustive and perhaps easier listen.
The songs vary in quality and few grabbed me with the immediacy of either a commercial hit or one of the atmospheric epics the band is known for. One did immediately grab me, but more on that later. Immediacy isn’t something I expect with Marillion, and the songs eventually found a sweaty nook in my brain to lurk in, but a few past albums felt like they had songs which could more easily and readily access that sweaty nook.
There’s a cynicism throughout and rather than being an album about escape, it feels like an album which accepts being trapped. Both inward and outward looking, the search for answers and hope more often than not draws a blank. The ‘Somewhere Else’ isn’t necessarily the wish for escape and freedom which I anticipated – it’s more like an anguished cry of loss – everyone I’ve loved is somewhere else, somewhere far from me. It’s not the darkness of Brave or the drunken despair of Clutching At Straws, but it’s not all smiles. Lets have a look at the first few songs.
The Other Half quickly showcases one of the most notable aspects of the album – H’s vocals. He tries a few new techniques in the album, leaning more heavily on his higher pitches than before. The Other Half is not an easy song to sing, with the intensity it deserves. The vocals just about stay above breaking point, but I’d hazard a guess that this one either doesn’t get a regular live outing or has been significantly changed over the years to suit the vocal needs. It begins in a standard enough fashion, mid-paced rock riffs with a touch of The Stone Roses as unusual as that sounds. Once we reach the mid-point, the vocals take off and we hear an effectively tingling amount of grit in the highest moments. As tricky as those vocals are, they’re far from the most difficult on the album.
Elsewhere, it isn’t the most challenging song musically, nor the most memorable. With repeated listens its power grows on me, but outside of the mid-point vocals and a few neat guitar moments its something of a lacklustre opener. Not a bad song, a perfectly pleasant mid album song, but not the moody or bombastic opener I look for. Lyrically it is more interesting based on what I’ve learned about H from listening to the podcast, his relationship woes and fears. It’s another revealing lyric, the way I’m interpreting it anyway, with H sort of admitting his faults (without naming them), calling out that he has learned and is learning, and concluding that he can’t be parted from his other half. So… basically… he acted like a dick, lost his wife, and now wants her back?
I’ve often wondered what it must be like to be the other half in a relationship where one party is in the public eye, specifically an artist or songwriter; someone who dedicates a piece to their other half which then enters the zeitgeist. Think of The Beatles penning songs for various loves over the years – songs which are part of our cultural whole but which were written for one individual. It must be bizarre and alluring knowing this thing everyone knows and loves was for you. How would you feel having this song written for you, would it be enough for you to give it another shot, would it further distance you? The song has some nice imagery, but putting myself in the shoes of the other half, I don’t know if I would want something more apologetic, something with actual details or if I would be mortified by that.
See It Like A Baby opens with a jazz-lite shuffle, a brief eerie interplay between the drums and guitars which continues into the verses where additional Rothery flourishes attempt to raise our interest levels. It’s a dull verse vocally and melodically, and the chorus follows suit merely repeating the name of the song in a derivative way. If it weren’t for the guitar noodling this would rank amongst the most boring songs Marillion has done to this point, and even then the guitars don’t offer excessive amounts of flair – it’s like the most boring mid-week dinner you can think of, and improving it with lo-salt. It comes and goes with little fanfare.
The lyrics don’t offer anything to improve my opinion – a short series of lines which you’ve heard variants of in a hundred other songs, the point seemingly that innocence is good, or experiencing something for the first time is good… I’m sure H will have a bigger explanation for what it really means but any interpretation I tried to force upon it didn’t make it any better or worse.
Thank You Whoever You Are fares better, but that may be because it constantly reminded me of songs I like more. It feels like several previous Marillion songs, tonally and melodically, and even with a soaring chorus (albeit another one which simply repeats the title) it feels like a retread or a band repeating former glories. Mostly, it reminds of the Bishop’s Robes by Radiohead in a very specific way. I’ve linked the song for anyone unfamiliar. The little wavering musical interlude between the first chorus and second verse (which I think is guitar with some sort of heavy flange – like Led Zep’s Down By The Seaside) around the 1.42 mark represents a maudlin tonal shift opposing the joy of the chorus. Getting a little technical, it goes B C# B to B B A and down to F#. It’s cool. But listening to the final 30 seconds or so of Bishop’s Robes, that song fades into a similarly downbeat departure and has a guitar (in B4 rather than Marillion’s B3) repeats B B A, then down to A A G. It’s not the same, but the similar pattern combined with the gloomy tone, combined with the tonal shift each represents, combined with the rhythm, made me draw comparisons. It’s a distraction which pulled both pulls me out of the song a little, but also improves it because it’s a cool way to bridge the distinct verse and chorus.
Speaking of bridges, the middle instrumental of the song raises the song beyond what may have otherwise been an okay, somewhat ordinary song to something more interesting, something with more life and substance. The verses are fine – a little bare with an unusual emphasis on the drums – while the chorus soars without reaching the heights of some personal favourite singles. The bridge (which I hope wasn’t cut from the running time for the single version) descends into a minor key led, dramatic clanging of pained pianos and guitars and bursts with the emotion I feel is lacking from the rest of the song. It also features an excellent understated guitar solo where we’re reminded that being tasteful and fitting a solo to the needs of the song is always better than flying off at a million miles an hour. The emotion from that bridge then carries through to the final chorus and end. One other nifty bit is H changing his pronouncing of ‘You’ in the chorus from something in a traditional song pronunciation to the more direct ‘yooo’. I love when singers take this into consideration in their performances, a slight shift in pronunciation of a single word or vowel, a slightly different note or timing on a note on a repeated piece. Rather than just repeating the same few words in the same voice in the same way, just that little shift can add so many more dimensions.
Whenever we have a ‘you’ in a song, we inevitably question who that ‘you’ is. 9 times out of 10 in your average pop or rock song, it’s the object of the writer’s affections, or hate as the case may be. If the other lyrics don’t make it obvious, we look to the context of the song and the writer’s life, and then make wild guesses and assumptions. Thank You Whoever You Are doesn’t give any obvious clues, and even the title suggests that the ‘you’ could be plural or that the writer doesn’t even know. Is H singing of his muse? Is he singing of his fans? I took it to be a prophetic ‘you’, this potential person who might step into his life in the future and provide some joy. I assumed there was confidence on H’s part that this person would come because there have been others before. I also took it to be more concerned with temporary fun and wading into groupie territory again – ‘I won’t ask you to sign on some dotted line’ – suggests no commitment beyond the immediate, a bit of fun, maybe a trip, maybe I won’t even remember your name but I’ll remember that I was happy with you for a while. So while I can see that most people may view this as a happy song, I found it uncovered more of that lonely Rock Star life and fits with the more hopeless aspects of the album.
‘Hopeless’ might be an appropriate segue into Most Toys. For some. If I’m correct in thinking this is the song people say is Marillion’s worst, then I’m a little surprised. It’s not that bad. It’s not great, but it certainly didn’t leap out as some blatant outlier or the ugly mistake we must not bring up in polite conversation. Every artist has one, and as fans we either come to terms with them, avoid them, or treat them as some humorous curio not to be taken seriously. Led Zep’s The Crunge. Manic Street Preachers’ Repeat Stars And Stripes. Guns n Roses’ My World. Everything REM did outside of Automatic For The People. I didn’t find Most Toys to be as bad as any of those and if anything, it was an energetic distraction from the opening run of mid-paced, soft songs. It’s not going to be anyone’s favourite, but it’s short, abrasive, and offers something different from everything else on the album.
The greatest accusation I can lob at the song is that it doesn’t seem to know what it want’s to be. What sound was the band trying to create? The drums are oddly flat, there’s not enough ring or sustain on the kick, the harshness of the production is like they’re going for a raw Steve Albini approach, yet the guitars and vocals lack any anger or substance . There’s an attempt at that faux Britpop bravado (one of the things which most pissed me off about that movement even while I was a fan), the sneering confidence and self-righteousness, and the whole song is very monotone. It’s not vicious enough for punk, not fun enough for irony and instead seems like something a band might write very early in their career rather than this late and off the backs of many more mature works.
But there’s a charm in how chaotic it is, in the fact that they tried to do something like this. Most will say that the band are again trying to distance themselves from Prog, trying to chase a sound that they’re not known for, trying to prove that they can still rock with the young’uns, but I would offer the counterpoint that maybe they were just trying to have fun, to let down their hair (literally) and just do something silly that didn’t exert them too much or require much thought. The lyrics kind of mirror that – a dismissal of expectation – if you’re in position X, then you must do Y. The band is saying ‘fuck that, we’ll do what we want’. Of course, whether or not the end result is enjoyable is down to you.
The lyrics are an overt dismissal of wealth, status, and all that material stuff, with a little bit of Trademark Marillion Snark concerning popularity within the music industry. But you know what? I like my stuff. I lean Left as much as anyone, but having famous millionaire Ewan McGregor smugly asking us if we’re going to regret the stuff we didn’t buy, or the places we didn’t go (also a thing which is exchanged for money) while being paid to advertise whatever cash-obese Holiday or Flight Company or whatever it is, comes off as such bullshit. Having famous globe-trotting rock star H, who just completed a double sided Concept album about A TOY, telling us that toys are shit and there are more important things in life, also feels like bullshit. I get it, I agree, other things are more important. But lets not tell each other how to live our lives. He who dies with the most toys may still be dead, but while he was alive he had the most toys, right? He who dies with the least toys, is also still dead.
The music industry has always been shit, always been a business, always supported or pushed what is popular and cool, but Marillion is a band which has survived for decades, played to (probably) millions, and I assume has made more money than most people will see. Are they millionaires themselves? Based on the podcast it sounds like they are not. We’ve covered it before, but do they deserve to have sold more albums and singles and had more radio air-time and media support? The quality of their output suggests that they should have – but that’s not how the business, or any business works. It’s rarely about quality over necessity – what sells is what the people want, skewed and skewered by a massive media machine which can manipulate the desires of the populace. It’s not fair – bands come and go and have a massive impact on people’s lives, but fade into obscurity or never make enough money to see their potential be met. Same with many walks of live, particularly in the entertainment industry. There are writers, actors, artists who I have been immeasurably influenced and moved by, who have given me exactly what I needed when I needed it, yet remain relatively unknown. Hell, look at Paul. As a Digi Original Reader, or thereabouts, I’ve been laughing for decades at what he has created and still am today. It seems to me that people should be kicking down his door with requests for scripts, art, jokes, vids, ideas, whatever. Many of my favourite bands split after one or two albums, yet those who seem to have considerably less musical talent top the charts. It is what is is, and fair it ain’t, but in the end maybe all that matters is the artist’s happiness – did they achieve what they wanted to? Was fame and fortune their aim, or simply getting their thoughts out of their bodies and seeing a creative process come to its conclusion regardless of views, audience, response, or likes?
Regardless, Marillion still benefited from the industry while nameless, countless thousands have not. This song? It’s fine. I understand the message, part of me applauds parts of it even while it doesn’t say anything new, it’s not as dull as a few other songs on the album, and it ends when it should rather than dragging on another couple of minutes. It sounds like Paul (maybe more so Sanja) actively dislikes this song based on the comments from previous episodes, but in the context of the album I don’t have many issues with it. It’s the obvious scapegoat for what may be seen as a generally bland, unadventurous album.
It has been a while since our last album focused podcast, what with the Marbles postbags, live show chats, and interesting rundown of the band’s most played songs. If anything, these reiterated how many songs I still have to hear and reminded me that Setlist FM – a site I’ve loved for years – is only as accurate as its contributors allow it to be. It’s not conclusive, especially not when it comes to lesser known artists and gigs from the pre 2000 era, and gaps are inevitable but it still gives you an educated guess close to the correct figures.
We begin with a discussion of weather – apparently the South of the UK has been in an unseasonal heatwave for a number of weeks. That heatwave has only today, on the 18th of July, reached Northern Ireland. For us poor lapsed Brits/Celts/unknowns, it has been one of the most dull, cold, grim and wet summers that I can remember. The few days of warmth we’ve had since April have been decimated by either cloudy skies or intermittent showers leaving it pointless to try to go outside. Even my lovely week off to the coast was interrupted by such shitty perplexing weather – didn’t stop me walking around outside in shorts and eating Ice Cream every day though, to the bemusement and horror of the handful of European and American tourists we met.
The guys are not beginning their track by track today – but fortuitously due to me being a week behind, I’ll cover two podcasts in post today! Paul wants to spend some of the episode talking about the potential myth that the album was universally dismissed by fans and critics. By his metrics, most reviews were average to positive, but after some time the fan forum backlash exploded and led to a more general sense that the album isn’t very good. And Paul may have had something to do with that backlash. It’s time for a reckoning.
BYAMPOD was mentioned on the recent H podcast, as a potential historical aid to what H wants to talk about on his own show. I can see why someone might get riled up about this, but lets calm down – in the absolutely certain event that someone makes a podcast or blog about me, I’ll take it as a compliment.
Between Marbles and Somewhere Else there was a three year gap – fairly standard for bands after their first few releases. Paul says the band had planned to release interim EPs – great, I love a good EP while waiting for a new album. The idea was eventually dismissed and the band took their time getting Somewhere Else out due to other projects and commitments outside of the main band such as H getting involved in Make Poverty History. If I were a rich boy, and assuming I wouldn’t just bugger off and visit every theme park in the world before retiring to my grotesque mansion and eat semolina all day, I wanted to create my own charity – a charity for rich boys. Long story short – the purpose of the charity is not to make poverty history, end war, cure cancer etc, but smaller, perfectly achievable things which would make life easier and remove those shitty little pointless annoyances that don’t need to be there, but which never seem to be fixed. A way to smash through red tape or council bureaucracy. Essentially, in order to be contribute to the charity, you have to be a rich boy. You need to show proof that you earn a minimum of 100 grand a year to sign up, and in signing up you agree to contributing X number of money per month. In exchange for your donation, you get to nominate and vote for a thing to fix – potholes on the road, a new kids park in your childhood town, fund for a new teacher in the local primary school, pay for some expensive piece of medical equipment in a particular hospital, build some new houses in a war torn/impoverished/run down town or country. Perhaps like Patreon, there would be tiers of donations equating to number of votes you get – if you pay 500 quid a month you get 1 vote, versus 10 votes if you pay 5ooo a month. Count the votes, pick the thing, go make it happen. I’m not sure such a thing is possible, but it would be a practical way of making life that little bit less annoying. Also; E-penis.
Paul gives his thoughts on why Somewhere Else was seen as a bit of a disappointment. The first reason is interesting because it has fuck all to do with the music – people may have been annoyed that there was no pre-order. Fine… does this make the fans sound entitled? I don’t know, I don’t have much to say about it. There was no physical single, certainly nothing to capitalize on their recent success. It wasn’t a double album, so less content for what you’re paying for. This is an easy one to agree with, however as a fan of a band I’d be happy with whatever they put out after three years as long as the music isn’t shite (see Radiohead and their 8 year gaps between lacklustre re-treads of better songs). The production is different, the focus is different, the tone is different, it’s more direct and simple than Marbles. It very clearly seems to be wearing its influences on its sleeves – Radiohead and Beatles most obviously, Black Sabbath not something I think I picked up on, but it makes sense. Even the critics of the period called out the similarities to other bands.
Three out of five reviews are not bad. Look at any music magazine – how many albums do they review each month? 10? 50? That’s every month. The problem with a three out of five is that it’s forgettable, both in itself and in the context of all the other stuff the critics are reviewing that month. After six months I’d wager most critics have forgotten most of the songs on the four star albums, so those three stars don’t stand a chance. Seemingly Most Toys being on it didn’t help.
Paul then relays his story of writing a Press Release for Somewhere Else, filled with humour and possibly multiple moc moc a mocs. With certain pieces removed, the final result ended up sounding desperate and the fans didn’t like the sound of what was coming. Having not read many Press Releases, it seems okay. Is it supposed to be so long? I thought a Press Release was a few brief snippets, but I don’t know what I’m talking about. Over on the forum, like any online meeting place where humans can get together in relative anonymity, people starting dicking about and spreading slurry, and a vocal minority spoiled what was once perhaps an engaging place and soured an otherwise okay album. People are the worst people.
Look at the length of this thing (that’s what she said, ‘she’ being yer ma, etc). We plough seamlessly into the next BYAMPOD and straight into the opening track. Also: Shiny Pink Heads. Also also; E-penis.
Sanja gives a quick bullet-point of her thoughts on The Other Half – which just happen to extend to her thoughts on the album as a whole – nice, accessible, good guitar bits, singy songy melodies. Paul agrees on the whole, but counters that the song and the album sounds like Marillion, but Marillion playing within themselves but lacking the skyscraping reach and soundscapes of their best work. Paul says the songs sound similar – I’ve called this out already, with many very mid-tempo, inoffensive songs in a row which don’t peak. Sanja goes into greater detail in her summary of the lyrics – the writer hitting rock bottom and flying through some Stranger Things portal where the falling because rising. Sanja takes a much more positive stance than I do, and I can see it. She puts it more beautifully than I gave the song credit for. Paul highlights the sadness of the lyrics, I had a little more cynicism.
See It Like A Baby is one of the songs I’ve written least about – Paul starts by saying he has nothing to talk about on the lyrics. It was the album’s first single, but download only and reached roughly 45. It’s a dull song. I haven’t listened to the album in a few weeks, but I’ve already forgotten mostly what it sounds like. Paul says it sounds like an Ian Brown song… I can see that, but I’m not a fan of Ian Brown and try to avoid him as much as I can, even though he always seems to be supporting whatever band I go to see or is lurking at whatever festival I’m attending. It’s not a song worth discussing – that’s something Most Toys has over this.
Thank You Whoever You Are was the second single and didn’t do too badly, reaching 15. Paul thinks it’s underrated – I think it’s a good song and don’t know enough to say if it’s underrated or not. It’s the clanging in the middle which makes the song for me – Paul and Sanja feel less interested in that portion but both agree that it’s a decent track. Paul isn’t a fan of the verses, likes the chorus, and thinks it’s Rothery’s best work ln the album so far. I have no idea what I was rambling on about when I was discussing the lyrics, but Sanja calls out that the vagueness of ‘whoever you are’ is interesting. H attributes the ‘you’ to both his son and his fans. So it’s a sweet little lyric.
Most Toys makes Sanja want to leave her skin. I’m still surprised the guys hate it this much – maybe it’s because I listen to music which can sound like this – heavier? Harsher? Or is it because it doesn’t sound like Marillion? Sanja mentions what I did – she doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, and that it doesn’t do H any favours. A length of a song absolutely plays a part in your enjoyment of a song – what’s better, Most Toys or Most Toys on repeat? I’ll say this for it – it’s one of the few melodies I can remember instantly from the album. Paul has grown to hate it less, and thinks the lyric is trite. Sanja, if you’re reading, what if there is a slow, piano version of this out there? Like one of those Christmas TV Adverts featuring some twee solo artist covering an 80s Power Ballad. Do you think there’s a version of this song you could love? Hell, even with Most Pies. Or most Pie-ness. Penis?
Let us know what you think of Most Toys, of the album, and as always please go support the guys as they’re providing hours of banter and fun for me, for you, and for everyone else. I’m off to sign up to Patreon now.