This week is a classic case of feeling like I have to talk about one thing, but really wanting to talk about another.
There’s this weird sense of duty I still have about this column, some delusional idea that people look to tm3am to weigh in on the big records of the week. That was certainly the case when I wrote it for print, and people actually read it. I’d get actual letters and phone calls asking when I would review/opine on new records. That hasn’t happened for a long time with this online iteration, and yet I still feel like there are new albums each week I’m expected to say something about.
This week’s conversation piece is, of course, Jesus is King, Kanye West’s long-delayed gospel-rap record. And the more I thought about what to write about it, the more I realized I just don’t have anything interesting to say about it. West swears he has had an actual road-to-Damascus conversion experience, and he’s filled Jesus is King with straight-up gospel worship songs. Sonically it sounds like a Kanye record, but it’s more like an Imperials album in form and content.
Which is all fine. I enjoyed my quick spins through this record – the whole thing is only 27 minutes long, and most of the songs hover around the two-minute mark, so it’s an easy listen – but I didn’t find it revelatory. My favorite part, weirdly, is probably Kenny G’s isolated solo on “Use This Gospel,” although I am fascinated by the fact that West gets people like Pusha T to rap about faith here. West’s guests, by and large, have never expressed interest in matters of faith before, so hearing them trade rhymes about Jesus is strange.
I’ve been watching the reaction to Jesus is King, which has been more interesting than the record, but I still don’t have a lot to say about it. I have no idea if West has had a true encounter with the divine, whatever that may look like. I don’t know if Jesus is King is a publicity stunt or a genuine outpouring of faith. (I do find the verses about God showing off by giving Kanye a lot of money troublesome.) And I don’t imagine all of the long-lead think-pieces in the world will let us know what’s going on in his heart.
It also doesn’t matter a whole lot. What we have is a 27-minute foray into gospel rap, and it’s no throwaway – it’s clear West worked on this and made it the best he could. I’ve been off Kanye West for some time now, listening as he lost his way and made dreary, tossed-off records about himself. This one feels more tightly focused, as if turning to the language of gospel has taken the pressure off. Jesus is Kingis a good record, and whether it turns out to be a side-step or a new direction is something only Jesus knows.
But honestly, I don’t want to talk about Kanye. I’m really here to tell you about Marillion.
I know what you’re going to say. I talk about Marillion all the time. But it’s a very good example of what I’m trying to illustrate here. Kanye’s record is one everyone cares about, and I’m just not that interested in it. Marillion’s work captivates me completely, and almost no one I know hears what I hear in them. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I still plan to fill the final paragraphs of this column with my thoughts and impressions of their surprise new record, not because I feel like anyone’s expecting me to, but because I just can’t keep music that moves me this much to myself.
So, Marillion. I don’t know if anyone reading this needs an introduction to them – just search my archive for several instances of me waxing lyrical about them. They’re often lumped in with progressive rock bands, but that’s not really what they do. To me, Marillion conjures up magic and shapes it, and those shapes can stretch to three minutes or twenty. They’re equally adept at either one, and all sizes in between. Lately, those shapes have been more symphonic – their 18th album, Fuck Everyone and Run, was built around three extended multi-part compositions and included their first-ever collaboration with a string section.
The band has expanded that collaboration on their surprise 19th album. It shares a name with their current tour – Marillion With Friends from the Orchestra – and finds them augmenting nine of their older songs with strings, horns and flutes. This is the perfect time for such a retrospective, since their inimitable frontman Steve Hogarth is celebrating 30 years with the band. He’s 60 years old and his voice is somehow even more striking and supple now than it was in 1989. They’ve made 15 albums together, including this one, and With Friends is a lovely overview of those three decades.
And man, these new arrangements. These aren’t just decorations – the band has fully integrated the orchestral elements into these songs, so much so that the original versions are going to seem slightly lacking. Marillion has always been something of an orchestral band, with keyboardist Mark Kelly’s layers of sound widening their horizons at every turn, but here they perfectly balance their more ethereal and earthbound tendencies. The song selection is perfection, opening with one of my very favorites, the death and rebirth anthem “Estonia.” It’s a song I want played at my funeral, and now this is the version I would choose. When the strings play Kelly’s countermelody on the last chorus, I get chills.
Some of Marillion’s prettiest songs are made even more beautiful here, from the transcendent “Beyond You” to the dark, powerful “The Hollow Man.” I have always wanted to hear “Fantastic Place” with real strings – the synth strings on the original version can be overpowering, but these sound delightful, caressing the early part of the song and lifting the later part. Both “The Hollow Man” and “A Collection” are filled out from their spare original versions, and my sole complaint with this record is that the sweeter arrangement of the latter masks the creepiness of the lyrics.
But all complaints are washed away by the three massive centerpiece tunes here. I’m not sure why I wouldn’t have expected that extended workouts like “This Strange Engine” and “Ocean Cloud” would be here, but they are, and the new arrangements are utterly magnificent. “Engine” isn’t changed very much, just augmented with gorgeous strings and horns, but I will never get tired of hearing Hogarth give his all to the final minutes of this song. It’s essentially his musical autobiography in 16 minutes, and he somehow sounds even better here than he did 22 years ago when he laid down these vocals the first time.
“The Sky Above the Rain,” the emotional closer of 2012’s Sounds That Can’t be Made, benefits the most from the orchestra. The best part of this song has always been the “maybe they’ll talk” coda, and here it is completely different, fragile instead of soaring. It reframes the whole song, making it a new experience. And “Ocean Cloud,” well, I don’t even know what to say. It is my favorite Marillion song, an 18-minute masterpiece, and it’s somehow even more symphonic and powerful in this new iteration.
These are songs I know by heart, songs whose nuances live and breathe within me, and With Friends from the Orchestra somehow has me appreciating them anew, hearing them in fresh ways. This is, in 79 minutes, exactly what I love about this band, and is now the single disc I will hand out to people who are curious about them. After 38 years and 19 albums, Marillion can still surprise and delight me. That’s a rare thing, and even if no one else in my life ever loves them the way I do, they’ve enriched that life more than they will ever know. Which is why, even in the face of indifference, I can’t be silent about them.
Hear and buy at www.marillion.com.
Next week, a roundup of several new releases in several genres. Follow Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning