As most of you probably know, my plan is to wind this column down at the end of the year.
Which means I don’t have many of these left. With December bearing down, I’ve started to put some serious thought into how I want to wrap Tuesday Morning 3 A.M. up. (My most powerful instinct is just to stop, now, but I know an endeavor like this deserves some kind of send-off.) I’m sure in my younger days I considered how I might bring this in for a landing someday, but I can’t remember any of those ideas now.
And it’s just as well. I’m not the same person I was when I started writing this thing, and thank God. I go back sometimes and read some of my earliest pieces, and they make me want to curl up into a ball. I was trying too hard to be edgy, to live up to some idea of what I thought music reviewers should be. I hadn’t learned how to just use my natural voice. I learned a lot writing TM3AM every week for 20 years, and that was one of the big lessons.
I guess I am thinking of my final column, which should run on Dec. 29, the way some artists think about their final album. It isn’t often that songwriters know when they’re making their final albums. Often that decision coincides with mortality – David Bowie and Leonard Cohen and Warren Zevon all knew their days were numbered, and designed their final albums to reflect their state of mind. Those are tough and powerful glimpses of the end, full of insights we don’t seem to see any other way.
But sometimes artists decide to ride off into the sunset on their own terms, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing. Lately I feel an affinity with these retirement package albums, and there is no greater one from this year than Weltschmerz, from Scottish singer Fish. I’ve been a fan for a long time – in his wayward youth, Fish was the original frontman for Marillion, one of my very favorite bands – and he’s been talking about making one final album for years. Now it’s here, and I expect it is everything he wanted it to be.
Weltschmerz, in German, means “world pain,” and Fish’s concept here (because he always has one) is to tell stories of people struggling. Sometimes overcoming, sometimes not, but struggling. He’s normally a first-person writer, and we’ve heard a lot through the years about his own relationships and his own failings. But he’s always been a strong storyteller too, something he proved on his recent A Feast of Consequences album with his five-part suite about World War I.
Yes, I know, just the idea of a five-part suite makes some of you break out in hives. Fish belongs to the prog tradition, like his former band, and although he has certainly moved beyond the Genesis mimicry of his earliest days, the songs on Weltschmerz are longer and proggier than what he has given us recently. In some ways it’s a return to his roots – Weltschmerz is an old-fashioned double album, about 85 minutes long, and three of its songs break the 10-minute mark.
And that gets at what I want to talk about here. Weltschmerz is great, truly, but the same thing that makes it great also makes it hard to love. This album is the very definition of pulling out all the stops for one last ride. There are strings, horns, big arrangements. These songs have movements, and they take you on journeys. Fish, as a lyricist, has always been more of a prose writer, but here he writes miniature novels, and the music is often there as a delivery method. The 15-minute “Rose of Damascus,” the story of a refugee fleeing her home country, is incredible. The lyrics are erudite and pointed and poetic, and the crack team of musicians Fish has assembled here makes every moment of it count.
But nearly all of the moments are like this, and as it moves along, the 10-minute saxophone-laden “Little Man What Now” giving way to the exuberant 13-minute “Waverly Steps (End of the Line),” it gets a little wearying. The pieces of this album are all terrific, but sequenced one after another, it’s a lot. My favorite moments on Weltschmerz turned out to be the smaller ones. “Man With a Stick” is a great song, tracing a life through the various sticks one carries as one ages. “C Song” is delightful, a simple anthem (“I won’t let you bring me down”) that uses its 4:41 to the fullest.
My favorite moment here, in fact, is the gentlest, and not just in contrast with the rest. “Garden of Remembrance” is perhaps – perhaps – the finest little song Fish has written. It’s an examination of dementia, of a man struggling with the disease as his wife copes with his fading memories. It’s gorgeous, and the accompanying video is similarly heartrending. There’s a stunning simplicity to this – “He’s lost between the here and now, somewhere that he can’t be found, she’s still here” – that outdoes all of the pomp and circumstance elsewhere on the album.
If there’s a mission statement here, it’s the title track, the final song on the final Fish album. It’s the story of a revolutionary who bears a striking resemblance to Fish himself: “I’m a grey-bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim.” It’s an angry song, but a hopeful one, and Fish ends this album and his solo career bewildered at the state of things, but ready to fight for change. Fish’s sense of social justice is at the heart of Weltschmerz, and I hope he carries on, even if this is his last musical work.
And it likely will be. Every minute of Weltschmerz feels like it knows that this is the finale, the last piece of music Fish will deliver. It’s big and grand and monolithic, and listening to it, I sometimes wish that those instincts had been pared back somewhat. The most emotional moments here are the quieter ones, and it is in those moments that I understand how much I am going to miss this man and his work. For this column, I feel like the lesson I can learn from Weltschmerz is to go easy, to not let the finality of things dictate the form of them. But for someone as ambitious and nearly mythological as Fish, this is the perfect way to go out.
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Of course, there’s something to be said for sticking around, too, and since this is likely my last chance to mention Marillion here, I’m going to. The band is coming up on 40 years, 31 of them with singer and frontman Steve Hogarth, and they’re as good now as they have ever been. Better, I would say. Their last two albums have easily numbered among their best, and last year’s glorious With Friends from the Orchestra revisited several of their finest hours with strings attached.
Now they’ve released a live album from their tour with string and horn players, With Friends at St. David’s, and it is equally glorious. I don’t understand how Hogarth, now 64, has a stronger and fuller voice than he did at half that age, but he does. The new arrangements turn opener “Gaza” into even more of a film score, add moments of unexpected beauty to “Ocean Cloud” and bring even the incredible “This Strange Engine” to new heights. I’ve heard each of these songs more times than I can count, and these settings make them feel new.
If you’re not already a Marillion fan, I’m not sure I would suggest starting with St. David’s. I’ve certainly gone on at length in this column about how wonderful I find the whole catalog, but I don’t think you should live another week without hearing Brave, Afraid of Sunlight, Marbles, Sounds That Can’t Be Made and Fuck Everyone and Run. (And if you want a dose of Fish-led Marillion, Clutching at Straws is my favorite.) Then, once you’re a fan, check this album and its studio counterpart out.
Marillion is working on their 20th album now, and it’s a little bit sad that I won’t get to review it in this space. But they’re one of my favorite examples of persistence and perseverance. 40 years, and no signs of stopping. Amazing.
Next week, the final reviews begin.
See you in line Tuesday morning.