Tentative Review #132

Clutching At Straws

(released 1987)

1. Hotel Hobbies ***1/2
2. Warm Wet Circles ***1/2
3. At That Time Of The Night ***1/2
4. Going Under ***
5. Just For The Record ***1/2
6. White Russian *****
7. Incommunicado ****
8. Torch Song ***
9. Slainte Mhath ****
10.Sugar Mice ***
11.The Last Straw ***1/2




Clutching At Straws, the fourth and final studio album by the Fish-led incarnation of Marillion, is often regarded as a high creative point for the band. Some Fish-era followers regard it as the group's final stab at greatness before "the decline"; others (taking a less adverserial approach) deem its highly personal lyrics and thematic content as an impressive artistic accomplishment. This reviewer, however, is of a different opinion. While there is some good material on Clutching At Straws, it is easily the weakest of the Fish-era albums.

From a musical standpoint, the band's sound is "bigger and heavier" here than it had been on previous releases, weighing the work down with simpler arrangements and performances(). This may have made the band more palatable to fans of late-1980s heavy metal [in fact, the band is* known to have made some minor inroads with this group in North America ... demographic marketing and record company pressure, anyone?], but it hardly helps the album hold up to critical scrutiny 12 years later. The music, however, is not the only problem.

(*) Ian Mosley, whose drumming remains solid throughout the album, is exempted from this criticism.

The primary theme of CaS is the destruction of a young artist through alcoholism and general hedonism. By most accounts, this was a fairly autobiographical lyrical approach for Fish to have taken at the time. Plagued by increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol, Fish was "losing to his own demons" on a fairly regular basis (and becoming rather distant from the rest of Marillion, accordingly). The problem with this approach is not the lyrics document the artist's erraticism and decline -- in 1983, Fish probably could have handled this subject in a fairly artful manner. Rather, the album suffers through the fact that the lyrics often reflect the piscean one's descent into a state of relative lethargy. If Fish's lyrics on earlier Marillion albums were sometimes "too-clever-by-half", they were at least fairly ambitious; here, they often seem to be, well, indicative of a mindset under constant exposure to chemical depressants (ie. "not-clever-enough"). The "Fish of old" claws through on occasion, but this can't disguise the fact that parts of this album seem to be little more than artistic wallowing in an alcoholic haze.

Some attention should also be given to the artwork inside the album, if only to display the extent of Fish's self-importance at the time. The inside art features two images of Fish (standing at a bar in one, standing in a pool room in the other) surrounded by such figures as John Lennon, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison et al -- young cultural icons who "burned out before their time", as it were. It would probably be unduly optimistic to suppose that these images were intended as an ironic display of the drunken narcissism of `the Fish character', especially when the "not ironic at all" explanation fits in so easily with the rest of the situation.

This album, then, actually serves as the beginning of two declines: Marillion's descent into poppier/hard-rockier stylings (holding steady for Seasons End, dropping further on Holidays In Eden), and Fish's descent into more prosaic lyrical themes (holding steady -- perhaps improving a bit -- for Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors, dropping further on most of Internal Exile). While some might argue that the Fish/Marillion split has proven detrimental to both sides in the long run, the evidence of CaS suggests that the partnership was falling into an artistic rut, one way or the other.


These criticisms aside, it should be noted that the music on CaS isn't terrible -- it just isn't as good as that on earlier Marillion albums. No songs on the album fall entirely below the range of acceptability (though "Sugar Mice" comes close ...), and the final judgement must be that CaS is a decent album. Fans of other Fish-era albums will probably find a fair degree of material here to appreciate; newcomers, however, would be advised to seek out Fugazi or Misplaced Childhood first.

The album begins with "Hotel Hobbies", a desperate cry from a mindset destroying itself through via the decadence of touring (strangely, the word "cocaine" is censored from the lyric sheet, despite being easily discernible in the song). The introduction to the song is fairly atmospheric (Kelly providing a tentative melody, Trewavas and Mosley accompanying); with the first "chorus", the heavier elements of the song make their appearance. A guitar solo from Rothery is actually a bit better than what Steve Hackett was doing at the time. Fish's lyrics are Hammillian at best (even inserting a Poe reference, at one point), prosaic at worst ("Do you cry in Happy Hour?" hardly seems a profound question ...). For better or worse, this is probably as appropriate an introduction to the album as could be imagined.

"Hotel Hobbies" segues into "Warm Wet Circles", a hit single in Britain (but not America) at the time of the album's release. This track qualifies as one of Fish's better moments on the album, with the imagery of the title being applied to a number of different contexts throughout the track [Peter Trewavas is rumoured to have opposed the title entirely, believing that the song would have been an even stronger hit were it not for the implicit sexual reference]. The atmosphere of the track is generally successful (the "heartbeat" bass setting at the end working especially well), and the song coheres fairly well (the "'80s rock" middle section might have been expunged without losing terribly much, however).

The next segue is into "At That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw)", a soliloquy sung from the barstool. Fish laments his transient life in this number, getting in a few decent lines before lapsing into self-parody by the time the track ends -- it's difficult to find much to like in a line such as "If some kind soul could please pick up my tab/And while they're at it/If they could pick up my broken heart"). The music remains unspectacular until its improvement during the chorus section. A bit of "Warm Wet Circles" reprises itself at the end of the track, improving things somewhat.

"Going Under" (only available on CD) is another alcoholic ballad, featuring some decent lyrics, a decent vocal hook, and some atmospheric keyboards. One might argue that the most clicheed lines of this track are more "in character" than those featuring in other songs; one way or the other, though, this track never really amounts to terribly much.

"Just For The Record" provides the best section of the album so far: a keyboard solo after the second verse which goes some way towards making up for the maudlin nature of the rest of the song. I've long thought that any Genesis references in Marillion's music should at least refer to the Gabriel years; Fish's inflections on this track, sadly, lean more towards the Collins side of things (some might note that Fish sings the words "down, down, down" during the chorus in a slightly similar manner to that featured in the Seconds Out version of "The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway"). Kelly aside, this number is essentially just an unspectacular pop venture.

Even in the middle of this artistic decline, Fish and Marillion still deserve credit for coming up with one top-notch number (which, by stunning coincidence, has nothing to do with alcoholism). "White Russian" rejects personal melodrama for social awareness, chronicling the rise of far-right movements in central Europe at the time of Kurt Waldheim's election as Chancellor of Austria -- such a theme might sound overly heavy-handed, but Fish manages to make it work relatively well. The song is also arranged in a more interesting manner than the rest of the album, with a contemplative piano setting towards the end ("Everyone looks at everyone's faces...") leading to an powerful resurgence in the final section ("We place our faith in human rights ..."). The reprise of the primary melody on a children's toy (a musical box, oddly enough) at the end of the song proper underscores the contrast of innocence and collective guilt in the lyrical setting. Given the mediocrity of the rest of the album, it's nothing short of amazing that the group was able to come with this track.

The transition back into relative mediocrity is paid somewhat painless by "Incommunicado" a decent prog-rock anthem relating to the pitfalls of sudden fame (more cleverly expressed here than elsewhere). This track is certainly a more succinct outline of Fish's problems than were the first five tracks on Side One, and has somewhat better music as well. And the introduction verifies that Mr. Mister did have some degree of influence, I suppose. [As with "Warm Wet Circles", this track was a hit in the UK, but not the US].

"Torch Song" takes the preposterous melodrama of the album to its peak/nadir with (i) lyrical references to Kerouac and (ii) a four-line "play" in mid-song between "Torch" and "Dr. Finley", concerning the latter's probability of not surviving to age 30. The use of the line "burn a little brighter now" may be the sole redeeming feature of Fish's lyrics here -- the music of the track is better, but not by much.

The leap in quality between "Torch Song" and "Slainte Mhath" may not be too strongly pronounced, but the actual moment of transition between the tracks is notable for the sudden emergence of a more substantial keyboard line. While once again focusing on alcoholic adventures perhaps too prominently, this track also manages to integrate a more general social ethos (referring to the working-class soldiers of World War I, and the similarities of their futile condition under an oppressive managerial class to Fish's own status at the time) -- the closing section of this track is quite impressive, and counts as the second best moment of the album. The soon-to-be-standard Rothery-guitar-lick works reasonably well in this context as well.

Then, unfortunately, we arrive at "Sugar Mice", a rather more prosaic number bearing an regrettable Phil Collins influence [once again: this track was a hit in the UK, not in the US]. A reference to Sinatra confirms Fish's decline into predictable cultural standards, and this is hardly the worst problem of this rather overwrought ballad. A guitar solo improves the overall value of the song, and the general direction of the track improves somewhat in mid-song (only to decline again with the "toughest thing") section. Not worthless, this track is nevertheless symptomatic of general creative difficulties within the Marillion unit.

The album then comes full-circle with "The Last Straw", a "Hotel Hobbies" update sung from a somewhat more detached standpoint. The track resonates with a sense of cloture, as the young artist becomes fully aware of his condition (and his decline). Ian Mosley provides some good work on this track, Fish's lyrics are slightly above-par for the album, and Tessa Niles's backing vocals are appropriate to the context.

According to most reports, the final "track" on this album was the result of a record company demand for a "happy ending" to this rather gloomy work. Accordingly, Fish devised "Happy Ending" -- cited in the liner notes as having been written at "St. Peter's Arms", the track consists of a heavenly "NO!", followed by demonic laughter.

In the final summation, this album fails (in part) by virtue of the very "failure" which it addresses. William Gladstone once claimed that his party was washed away by the British electorate on a torrent of alcohol; the same might be said of Fish's muse on this project. One might even argue that the decline from Misplaced Childhood to CaS stands as a fair warning of the very dangers outlined in the later. Though CaS has some good music, it cannot be strongly recommended.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 8 Jan 1999)

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