A shout-out to start us off – congratulations to Chris L’Etoile, one of my oldest friends, on the birth of his second child, Caleb. Chris and his gal Jamie live in faraway Alberta, Canada, so I’ve missed seeing their first son, Jeremiah, grow up – he’s nearly four now. Chris sent a picture of Jeremiah holding newborn Caleb in his lap, and I would post it here, but it far exceeds the legal limit of adorable in this state. Congrats, Chris and Jamie. I hope I get to meet the new little one soon.
So I had this whole column planned out – I was going to try another experiment in concise writing, whipping through four or five reviews as quickly as I could. But then my friendly postman delivered my deluxe edition of Marillion’s Happiness is the Road this week, and that plan flew out the window. Of course, we’re in the middle of the Autumn avalanche – there’s so much new music coming out that I just can’t get to it all, or cover it in the depth that I would like, and devoting this week’s missive to Happiness will just put me farther behind.
So I did both columns. The other is listed on the archive page, and examines new ones from the Dears, Copeland, Ray LaMontagne and Shearwater, as well as the physical release of Bloc Party’s Intimacy. This one, though… this one is all Happiness. It deserves the space. I hope you think so too.
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True story: I hated Marillion’s Brave the first time I heard it.
It struck me as too simple and too meandering. Honestly, I just didn’t hear any great songs – Marillion music is ordinarily immediate for me, and only grows deeper from there, because they write fantastic songs. They are equally adept at the three-minute pop ditty and the 15-minute multi-part epic, but I didn’t hear them doing either one very well on Brave. The worst offender was “Goodbye to All That,” which, I thought, wasted 12 minutes on formless atmosphere, something I’ve chastised bands like Radiohead for doing. I didn’t get this album at all on first listen.
But I kept at it. And slowly, Brave took shape for me. Now I consider it one of the band’s finest records, a seamless 70-minute outpouring of beauty, anger and despair. There is so much emotion hidden in the corners of this album that I feel ridiculous for not having heard it immediately. But that’s the trick – Brave is not an album you hear as much as one you feel. And it needs time to penetrate, to reveal its secrets.
I tell you all this because I went through something similar with Happiness is the Road, Marillion’s just-released 15th album, and I suppose I should have sensed history about ready to repeat.
I’ve been waiting for Happiness for about a year now. Long-time readers will know that I consider Marillion one of the best bands in the world. They started in the early ‘80s as pretty typical prog-rockers, aping an early Genesis sound, but they set themselves apart by singing about some truly emo things – mainly, original singer Fish’s broken heart and alcohol addiction. It was huge, massive music, but still intensely personal.
Marillion didn’t really find its identity until Steve Hogarth arrived in 1988, taking over for Fish. Hogarth has a high, strong, soaring voice, and he uses it like another instrument, another way of bringing the listener in. With Hogarth at the helm, the band has gone from strength to strength – the timid first steps of Seasons End, the brilliance of Brave, the aching beauty of Afraid of Sunlight, and more recently, the explosive power of Anoraknophobia and the all-encompassing career summation of Marbles. There have been some lesser lights, like last year’s half-baked Somewhere Else, but every one of the band’s 11 albums with Hogarth is worth hearing.
Marillion has also embraced the Internet like few bands have, using it to build and maintain a massive worldwide fanbase. They’ve figured out a way to exist independently, just them and their fans, and they engender a loyalty that a lot of musicians would kill for. The last few album releases (excepting Somewhere Else) have been financed through a pre-order system – fans like me pony up our money in advance, before the record button is pressed even once, and it’s through our faith in the band that they can pay for recording, mixing, mastering, artwork, duplication, distribution and marketing, all on their own.
The upshot of this is Marillion is free to make any music they want, and for a band like this, that’s better than any reward the major labels could offer. They’re only beholden to us, their biggest fans, and while we’re a notoriously picky bunch, Marillion has formed magic from the air so many times by now that I, for one, am always excited to hear what they come up with.
I will admit, though, to a bit of hesitation this time. I waited months to send in my $60 for the album 15 pre-order, partially because I was so disappointed with Somewhere Else. It’s grown on me since I first heard it, but after the amazing Marbles, it kind of sits there, an average Marillion album. And then there were the plans for this new one – two discs, made up mostly of songs that didn’t make the cut on Marbles and Somewhere Else. I expected an overlong clearing house, a White Album-style mess.
But I ponied up anyway. And I did what every Marillion fan has somehow gotten used to doing. I waited.
Then, about a month ago, the band did something brilliant. They made the entirety of Happiness is the Road, the new double album, available for free download. It was a gift to those of us who pre-ordered, and it came with a mission – seed every torrent and download site with a particular version of this album, one that would redirect those who downloaded it to marillion.com. We can’t stop illegal file sharing, the band said, but we can at least try to tap into that market, and get the downloaders on our side.
I wouldn’t even know where to go to seed these files to sharing sites, so I didn’t do any of that. But I did download the album, hands trembling, heart pounding. 110 minutes of new Marillion music. I couldn’t breathe. I pressed play. I listened.
I hated it.
Formless, poorly-produced mush, I said. Nothing stands out from the murk, I said. These songs are among the weakest the band has ever foisted on us. This is the first Marillion album I hate. There is nothing here for me at all. What a crushing disappointment. I put the album away for a couple of days, unable to believe how much I didn’t like it.
You know where this is headed, right? I kept listening, and within a week, Happiness is the Road had blossomed into something beautiful. It’s so rich, powerful, emotional and grand that I don’t know how I missed all of its virtues the first time through. Even in low-quality mp3 format, these songs pulse with life, and the real deal, the actual CDs… wow. This is, musically, thematically, sonically and emotionally, one of Marillion’s finest hours.
Happiness is the Road is really two albums, called Essence and The Hard Shoulder. Disc one is a conceptual journey, a cohesive 50-minute suite. Disc two is all the songs that didn’t fit the concept. Far from being a clearing house, Happiness is two distinct pieces of music with no filler tracks, two solid albums each with its own character. They are sold separately, and the sumptuous deluxe edition packages each disc in its own hardcover book, then houses them in a slipcase. It’s clearly not a double album, but you’d be forgiven for treating it like one.
Taken as a whole, Happiness is the Road is one of the least immediate collections Marillion has ever made. The quintet has stripped back everything that has come to identify their sound – Steve Rothery’s soaring guitar is muted throughout, Steve Hogarth spends much of the album singing quietly or reaching for a wavery falsetto instead of belting the songs out. There is no 15-minute epic – the longest song is 10 minutes, but most are around four. If you’re looking for the prog-rock of old (or even of Marbles), you won’t find it here.
This music needs time to burrow under your skin, but once it’s there, you’ll hear new things every time you listen. Songs that seemed flat and stagnant at first will reveal hidden melodies. On repeated listens, you’ll especially grow to admire Pete Trewavas’ extraordinary bass playing, and Ian Mosley’s deceptive, almost jazz-like drumming. It takes some time, but it’s worth it.
I’m on listen number 48 or so, and here’s what I’m hearing now.
Essence is the most consistently fragile and beautiful album Marillion has ever made. I was initially disappointed on a song-by-song basis, but it’s the cumulative effect that packs the punch. It opens with “Dreamy Street,” a minute-long piano-vocal intro that finds Hogarth stumbling around for a metaphor. He finds one on “This Train is My Life,” and if there’s any song here that exemplifies What Marillion Does, it’s this one. Every element is here – Rothery’s understated guitars, Mark Kelly’s chiming keyboard bells, a spine-tingling melody from Hogarth, and a hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment. (“Take my hand, squeeze it tight…”)
From there, though, little else sounds like Marillion. “Essence” is a glorious mini-epic, starting softly but building and building to an orchestrated finale. “Wrapped Up in Time” moves from synth segue to chorus-less piano ballad, which slips perfectly into “Liquidity,” a brief instrumental. And “Nothing Fills the Hole” sustains the placid mood, even while paying homage to Motown. (Seriously.) But for the majority of its running time, Essence is about setting an atmosphere and building it up.
The band kicks in on “Woke Up,” a mid-tempo guitar-rocker, but even that song is restrained, part of the crescendo. “Trap the Spark” is gorgeous, Hogarth’s falsetto melody dripping with feeling, and “State of Mind” kicks things up a gear, ending with an almost gospel-style, joyous refrain. But the whole thing is prelude to “Happiness is the Road,” a 10-minute excursion that begins like a hymn and ends like an anthem. The chorus is very simple – just the title, repeated in an ascending pattern – but it took a while to realize that it’s the first thing on this album Hogarth really sings with all he has. It’s an amazing moment.
Lyrically, Essence is about appreciating every moment. It was inspired by Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, which is about letting go of both the past and the future. Hogarth spends the first half of the album watching time go by, and the second half (after “Woke Up”) catching every moment like fireflies. You can’t trap the spark, he says, you have to enjoy it while it’s here. Or, put another way, “Happiness ain’t at the end of the road, happiness is the road.”
The music fits this progression perfectly. “Wrapped Up in Time,” for example, is almost mournful, Hogarth using starlight as a metaphor for echoes of things long extinct, while Kelly’s piano rings out behind him. Even the structures of the songs fit the theme – there’s very little musical repetition here. Each part of “Essence” happens only once, and the chorus of “Nothing Fills the Hole” is only sung one time. But when the album explodes lyrically, the music matches – “Happiness” is massive, its slight reggae inflection belying the layers and layers of sound atop it. It all leads to the chorus, as monolithic a Marillion moment as there has ever been.
Yeah, I like Essence. But what of its twin, The Hard Shoulder?
This one’s a little more difficult, simply because there’s no concept – this is just an album of nine songs, so each one has to stand or fall on its own. Thankfully, after a few listens, they stand just fine. The sequence of The Hard Shoulder baffles me – it starts with its three most impenetrable songs, each more than six minutes long, and it shuffles the melodic pop singles to the end. If you bought this for “Whatever is Wrong With You,” Marillion’s punchiest single since “You’re Gone,” you have to wade through six less punchy tracks to get to it.
“Thunder Fly” starts off like a barnburner, Rothery turning in his most rollicking guitar riff to this point, but it slowly unfolds into a more complex rock epic. Here, finally, are the soaring solos – the lengthy one that ends “Thunder Fly” is the best on Happiness – but they’re more restrained than, say, the ones on “Neverland.”
I have struggled the most with “The Man From the Planet Marzipan,” which sounds like a novelty tune from the title, but ends up a seven-minute prog-rock extravaganza. The 3-D production is amazing here – every element is separated and distinct, and it’s like flying through an asteroid belt. The song is strikingly complex, even for Marillion, and I think I have it mapped out in my head now, but I hear new things each time. Hogarth shines here, especially when he wails, “There’s so much that I can’t take in…” I have almost no idea what this song is about, however.
And then there is “Asylum Satellite #1,” a nine-minute sci-fi monster that imagines a world in which the crazy people are sent into orbit for life. This is a difficult beast to tame, as it has no chorus, and is propelled by one of Trewavas’ trickiest bass parts. But when Hogarth sings “we can see the madness perfectly from here,” it lifts off – the rest is all instrumental, Rothery making his magic over a dense keyboard and bass bed. The little coda is wonderful, too.
“Older Than Me” is a charming ballad, all bells and voice, all about loving an older woman. It’s so slight it nearly gets lost, but it’s gorgeous, and it contains my favorite line on the album: “We’ll be over the hill and far away,” sung in a lovely falsetto with a choir of angels backing it up. “Throw Me Out” is the only song here that directly references Hogarth’s recent divorce, and the tune has a Crowded House feel, shuffling along until the clarinets come in. And “Half the World” is a delightful, mid-tempo pop song with a sweet chorus.
The final three songs rock harder than anything else on Happiness, and it’s puzzling to me why they were relegated to the end. “Whatever is Wrong With You” remains a winner, even with an extra minute added. Rothery cranks up the amps, and delivers his most striking solo – it sounds like it was pieced together from a much longer recording, jumping from tone to tone. The song is a celebration of oddness – “whatever is wrong with you is so right for me” – and it deserves to be a hit.
It segues smartly into “Especially True,” a song about embracing America. It’s a surprising lyric, especially after “The Last Century for Man” on Somewhere Else, but the sometimes sinister music betrays the hidden fangs. It all leads up to “Real Tears for Sale,” a seven-minute excursion that is part classic rock, part Celtic ambience. It’s the hardest-hitting thing here, a song reportedly inspired by Sinead O’Connor that lashes out at those who would sell real emotions to the masses. “Even whores don’t kiss with tongues,” Hogarth sings, “nevertheless I do believe you cried real tears…” I like this song, but it’s a surprisingly bitter note to end this album on. Musically speaking, though, it had to be the finale.
The Hard Shoulder doesn’t cohere nearly as well as Essence, but it isn’t supposed to. As a set of songs, it works well – just on its own, it’s a fine rebound from Somewhere Else, and it continues to reveal its riches with each play. Paired with Essence, though, it is one-half of an exceptionally strong release for a band in its third decade. Only time will tell if Happiness is the Road takes its place next to Brave, Afraid of Sunlight and Marbles in the pantheon – if it does, it will be the first one not produced by Dave Meegan to do so, and Mike Hunter should take a bow for his fantastic work on this record.
I have talked to numerous others who had the same immediate negative reaction to Happiness, and all I can say is, stick with it. There’s more here than you can take in at first. It’s taken me some time to come to grips with it, but Happiness is the Road has taken root, and it just keeps growing in stature. It’s a bold choice to release something that demands repeated listens, demands much more attention than most are willing to give a piece of music these days.
Stay with it, though, and Happiness will transform before your ears into something amazing. It’s hard to believe this is album 15 – Marillion is at the top of their game here, turning out some of the most creative and beautiful music they’ve ever made. And they did it their way, no compromises.
As a final note, the band outdid themselves with the deluxe packaging this time. Artist Antonio Seijas provided hundreds of eerie, jaw-dropping images, and the covers of the books and the slipcase are embossed. It’s a hefty thing, but it’s incredible. And, of course, they included the names of everyone who pre-ordered. You’d think the thrill of finding your name in a list like that would wear off, but it doesn’t.
You can order the deluxe Happiness at www.marillion.com. Needless to say, I recommend it highly.
Next week, the Cure, Ryan Adams, Of Montreal, and maybe Queen and Paul Rodgers.
See you in line Tuesday morning.