“We live out lives in private shells
Ignore our senses and fool ourselves
To thinking that out there there’s someone else cares
Someone to answer all our prayers” – The Last Straw
1987 saw the release of the final studio album by British Prog heroes Marillion with the enigmatic Scottish singer Fish. Clutching At Straws was not the commercial success that had been anticipated after the giant Misplaced Childhood long-player of 1985, but it is their finest release. Containing 11 main tracks of amazing melodies played off against a bitter conceptual tale of the character of Torch (supposedly a descendant of the Jester from earlier album sleeves), a 29-year-old out-of-work man whose life is a mess and seeking comfort mostly in alcohol. As he gets drunk, he also writes about his surroundings and his regrets.
The release is a dark opera of brilliant music, accompanied by soulful burning vocals from Fish along with lyrics so sharp they could chop up the coke alluded to in the songs, all by themselves. The bitter taste of regret layers the album and the anger is palpable.
“Hotel Hobbies” runs out first, like a boxer taking to the ring and sticking out his jaw, daring you to hit him. The vocals are spat at you and the guitars of Steve Rothery squeal across the broken landscape – this is not easy listening by any means, but is soulful and joyful all at the same time.
The lead track splinters into the more famous “Warm Wet Circles“, with its evocative tale of the heart weary lives. The lyrics are simply top notch, with the brilliant lines “Through the tears of condensation/That’ll cry through the night/As the glancing headlights of the last bus/Kiss adolescence goodbye.”
The elegant keyboards of Mark Kelly lead out the charge for “That Time of Night“, another booze-influenced binge of bitterness. The sheer sorrow of this song makes me shiver still after all this time. One of my favourites on the album.
“Going Under” ramps up the pressure and takes a pulse check with its acoustic guitar and ambient keys. Again, the lyrics are thoughtful and laced with vinegar.
At this point, it is easy to reflect that this record was the last studio record with Fish singing with Marillion and that it is somewhat autobiographical with stories of drugs, drinks and fights being circulated. If this was the case, then it does rather explain the dark nature of the collection.
“Just for the Record” passes by without too much fanfare before the awesome “White Russian” closes out Side A (in the pre-CD era). The prose by Fish is stunning with lines like “The silence never louder than now, how quickly we forgot our vows” railing against injustice. Powerful in the extreme.
The album lights up with the last few songs. My pick of the record is “Torch Song” with its gentle menace and sadness, “burn a little brighter now” indeed. The soaring guitar over the melody gives it a ghostly finesse that is just perfection. The tune is also added to by the spoken parts, where Torch speaks to his doctor about dying before he hits thirty if he continues his lifestyle.
“Slainte Mhath” is a Gaelic expression for “good health” and the song details the writer discussing betrayal and his lack of faith in the future. Another superb stab at articulating angst for bitter boys.
“Sugar Mice” is a sad voice in lonely times and tugs at the heart strings with its “Blame it on me, you can blame it on me/We’re just sugar mice in the rain” – mortality with no resurrection for sure…Hard!
The album closes out with the no happy ending, as the “Last Straw” shuts the coffin lid without redemption. The music is light, but the “terminal cases that keep taking medicine” line makes it clear that there is no light at the end of this particular tunnel.
I saw Marillion on this tour and you could tell that it was stressful behind the scenes, although the playing was excellent. Fish‘s shadow casts long for early Marillion fans and although I very much like Steve Hogarth, who replaced him, I still believe that the unit was stronger when Fish was behind the microphone.
This album is a fitting epitaph for a band that was at the height of their powers but was splintering before our eyes. Neither Marillion nor Fish has since matched these heights and will probably never again hit them…Shame, but I will always love this gem. 1987 was a special year for me and this album was a big part of it.