Open Water, Open Heart
Fish Lays it All Out There on 13th Star

I know I promised a look at some under-the-radar records this time, including the fantastic new Pinback album, but the new Fish CD showed up in my mailbox on Monday, and I haven’t been listening to anything else since. So I’m gonna talk about that. Next week, I’m sure I’ll get to the new ones from Pinback, Liars and Minus the Bear, but let me just say up front that my choice not to review them this week is in no way a vote against the albums themselves. They’re all great, and all worth your cash.

But for this week, it’s the charismatic Scotsman and his 13th Star.

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A couple of weeks ago, Fish played a one-off reunion gig with Marillion.

Fish was their original singer, and thanks to a couple of hits (“Kayleigh,” “Lavender”) on the other side of the pond, he’s still strongly associated with them. Poor Steve Hogarth has been fronting Marillion since 1989, but Fish’s persona and presence are so strongly imprinted on the band that Hogarth is still considered “the new guy” by many. In fact, just about every week on the band’s online forum, someone asks whether a reunion is possible. I find the question insulting to the 18 years of amazing work Hogarth has contributed to the band, but still, people ask.

And a couple of weeks ago, those people got their wish. The four instrumentalists in Marillion joined Fish in the Market Square in Aylesbury to perform (what else?) “Market Square Heroes,” the band’s first single from 1983. By all accounts, a good time was had by all, and I wish I’d been there.

Of course, those same fans that have been begging for a reunion are trying to make more of this one-off than it is, and that makes me sad. This sort of spontaneous reunion could only have happened now, when both Marillion and Fish are producing their best work separately – it’s the only way both parties could be secure enough to even try it. Marillion’s in a great place right now, and even though their 14th album, Somewhere Else, doesn’t quite do it for me, their 13th, Marbles, was perhaps the best thing they’ve ever done.

And while Fish’s solo career has seen its ups and downs, lately he’s been on a roll. The erstwhile Derek Dick released a scorcher of an eighth album a few years ago called Field of Crows, and a stunning acoustic collection called Communion earlier this year. His voice has dropped considerably, and is now this low, rumbling instrument that he’s learned to wield to his advantage – his later work is darker, heavier and creepier than the more Marillion-esque material he used to write.

That trend continues on 13th Star, his terrific new album, but it’s so much more than that. This record is a culmination point for Fish, a summation of all the places he’s been and a beacon pointing towards some distant, undiscovered shore. Is it his best solo album? Well, I’ve only listened to it half a dozen times, but at this early stage in my relationship with 13th Star, I’m ready to say yes.

But let’s back up a bit. When I first heard the title of this album, I was a little puzzled, especially since Fish himself made mention of this being his 13th album. As far as I could tell, there were only nine, counting 13th Star – was I missing a few? I tried adding in collections, like Yin and Yang and Bouillabaisse, but still couldn’t get to 13. And if you mix in all of his various live albums, you get more than 30. I didn’t get it.

And then it hit me. He’s counting the four albums he did with Marillion.

As well he should, since they’re as much Fish’s as anyone else’s, but by encapsulating those four seminal releases, the Piscine One has drawn a straight line from the man he was to the man he is on 13th Star. And while that’s quite a trip, it’s amazing how little some things have changed – Fish is still a helpless romantic, still washed up on the shores of his own failed relationships, and still searching for something better and more meaningful. The Fish of Misplaced Childhood is, in many ways, the same guy that narrates 13th Star.

But one thing has changed, and it’s done so gradually, so you probably wouldn’t notice it so much without playing an early Marillion album and 13th Star back to back: Fish has become a much more direct lyricist in the intervening years. The early Marillion albums are all about Fish, but he disguised his emotions and insecurities in stories about jesters and visions and lizards. These days, he writes about himself in naked, simple language, and never more so than on this album.

In other words, it’s a long way from “The fool escaped from paradise will look over his shoulder and cry, sit and chew on daffodils and struggle to answer why” to “I was lying to even think I could survive without your love, I can’t deny it,” but the sentiments are the same.

13th Star was written during the final weeks of Fish’s public romance with Heather Findlay, singer of Mostly Autumn, and what we get here is a concept album about the dissolution of their relationship. The basic story is of a restless sailor in search of truth, who finds a navigator, is betrayed, and continues searching on. But on prior records, Fish might have disguised the origins of his tale, and here he lays it all out there – he’s hurting, he’s bitter, he thought this one would last, he’s sorry. Even with all the visual imagery artist Mark Wilkinson painted into the amazing (and I mean amazing) cover art, this is Fish’s most personal and pure record ever.

“Circle Line” and “Square Go” set the scene, and they may as well be two halves of a whole. Both are based on repetitive grooves, meant to symbolize the circles our protagonist sails in without his navigator, and both have a surprising depth of color and arrangement, given their single-minded beats and bass lines. Fish wrote most of this album with bassist Steve Vantsis, so the rhythm sections here get a lot of attention, and Fish’s voice is almost a bass instrument itself here.

There is no set Fish style, mostly because the man can’t play any instruments, and so he’s at the mercy of his collaborators each time out. That’s why Marillion’s been more consistent over the years, but Fish has been more adventurous – “Square Go” is one of the heaviest things Fish has ever done, almost industrial in tone, and it works wonderfully. But then it segues into “Milos de Besos” (Spanish for “millions of kisses”), a sweet piano ballad in the vein of “Tara” from Sunsets on Empire.

“Zoe 25” is about meeting your navigator, and not realizing it. It’s also the catchiest pop song here, nearly sprightly in comparison with some of the other tracks. It contains the key line of the album, as far as I’m concerned: “You know you’ll never find her when you’re still looking for yourself.” This endless journey of self-discovery and the relationships it leaves in its wake is the keystone of Fish’s work, and I’ve never seen him lay it out there so directly.

The rest of the album is about Findlay, and there’s no hiding it. “Arc of the Curve” is an acoustic-driven love song, looking at the hopeful start of the relationship, ending with the line “I could never contemplate that you would ever walk away.” But she did, and the second half of 13th Star is about picking up the pieces. Here’s “Manchmal,” another industrial-strength rocker, about the pain of betrayal. Here’s “Openwater,” about the navigator leaving our hero adrift on the open sea. And here’s “Dark Star,” a bitter tune that rehashes the worst moments of the breakup.

Is all this too much straight diary entry? Should Fish have disguised his topic behind more inscrutable metaphors? Perhaps, but I get the sense that he couldn’t have written this album any other way. Fish has never examined and immortalized a relationship the way he’s done this one, and it sometimes feels like voyeurism just listening. (I do wonder how Findlay feels about this record…)

The final two tracks are the most searing and personal, probably because they’re the slowest and most exposed songs here, musically speaking. “Where in the World” deftly sidesteps mawkishness, not an easy task when Fish has written lines like “You took me by surprise, you hurt me so deep inside.” In that song, he wonders where he will go from here, and in the title track, he answers himself – he’ll follow his destiny, navigate by the stars. This part of the journey is finished, but the rest could take a lifetime, and he knows it.

I’ve barely talked about the music, and that’s because, fine as it is, it takes a back seat to the words and the emotions this time. Let me say this, though: 13th Star sounds better than any other Fish album. The production is excellent, the arrangements superb. As for the songs themselves, while I like them all, I think the writing is a notch down from Field of Crows. But here’s the thing – 13th Star sets up such a consistent mood that it plays like one long song, inseparable in the same way Clutching at Straws is. It is a better album of slightly lesser songs, and the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Fish is nearly 50, and while you can hear his age in his voice here and there, this album is strikingly adventurous for a guy with a 25-year recording career behind him. He’s still trying new things, pulling in new sounds, and making the best records of his life. If you can handle the bare emotionalism of songs like “Where in the World,” you’ll find that 13th Star is quite possibly the best thing Fish has done since leaving Marillion. It’s a 55-minute voyage through sometimes choppy seas, with an uncertain destination, but when it’s over, you’ll want to take the trip again. It’s a fine reward for the big man’s persistence and vision, and also for those of us who’ve followed that vision for years.

Check Fish out here.

Next week, the three I promised last week, and more Doctor Who musings.

See you in line Tuesday morning.