Fish Music [Release date: 25.09.20]
Put simply, if this is to be Fish’s final studio production, he leaves us with a masterpiece.
The release has been much delayed. After the project was announced back in 2015, Fish has suffered the loss of his Father, together with some mental health pressures and a series of physical ailments and operations. He’s also taken on the control of all aspects of his music business. From the studio in his back garden (featured in a recent episode of Gardeners World!) to creating his own management structure, record label and distribution processes.
There was never any doubt that the project would be completed though. For those who follow his articulate and detailed social media posts, Fish has regularly conveyed a sense that delivering ‘Weltschmerz’ was both his inspiration and nemesis. Driven by perfection, he wanted this last world-weary opus to be worth the struggle. It is.
In old money, this is what you would call a classic double studio album. It is filled with tracks that build, ebb, flow, change direction and give room to breathe.
‘Grace of God’ sets the scene. It is an intricate piece of many moving parts. The opening passages are delicate with strings floating over a complex rhythm providing the cues for Fish to paint pictures of hospital patients slipping away amongst consultants, computers and care committees. Written long before Covid-19 broke, but this could be the soundtrack to the pandemic. The song swells with despair, rising on an arrangement that introduces brass and searching backing vocals. Quite the entrance, Mr Dick.
That melancholic sense of the German weltschmerz concept can be detected in the way the album has been put together. ‘Man With A Stick’ sees Fish dealing in graphic terms with the state-endorsed brutality and violence that instils fear in communities in every corner of the planet. And yet there is no rage in the big man’s manner, unlike the days of jerking outrage circa ‘Fugazi’. This is Fish describing terrible injustice in expressive but measured and careworn tones. Only the fuzzy guitar riffs hint at an angry undertow.
And that gorgeous synth/string combo again on ‘Walking On Eggshells’, a song about a tortured relationship that should end but won’t.
Throughout the opus, Fish’s voice is melodic and characterful, sounding smoother than it has done for a long time. Part of the credit should go to the production team of Calum Malcolm and Steve Vantsis who find a deft touch for the vocals, matched by balance, depth and sensitivity everywhere else. Malcolm has worked with Fish previously, but for this album a more appropriate reference point might be his production, back in the day, of The Blue Nile. Multi-instrumentalist Vantsis is also a long-time Fish collaborator and has also written the music alongside another regular Fish ally, guitarist Robin Boult.
There are two, perhaps three, outright showstoppers here. ‘Rose of Damascus’ is one. The 15 minute-plus track is ambitious in its lyrical scope, switching focus repeatedly from the individual to the remote, as we follow a teenage girl on an innocent Friday night (almost echoing the feeling of ‘Warm Wet Circles’ from ‘Clutching at Straws’, but transported from Scotland to the Middle East) through the horror of death from the skies to the shores of the Med and a possible passage to safety. The words are frequently stage-whispered a la ‘Blind Curve’, circa 1985, but the music is sleek and restrained. No overwrought prog workouts here.
Secondly, ‘Waverley Steps (End of the Line)’ brings together all the nuanced skills of Fish’s sustained career: a powerful, moving, poetic narrative; a shifting, brassy soundscape that breathes life into the words; and a sense of drama that coils around both. The track also features the best guitar work on show here.
Elsewhere, ‘This Party’s Over’, all Celtic grooves and rhythms, could easily be a strapline for the album. ‘Garden of Remembrance’ offers tender, delicate moments. ‘Little Man What Now’ is inspired by his Father’s passing and features a thrilling guitar/sax/keys interchange to wrap up the song.
The third showstopping contender is the title track and fittingly, the album closer, ‘Weltschmerz’. Over a sharp guitar line, Fish begins with a lyrical phrasing that could be The Stones’ ‘Sympathy For the Devil’ in a different Universe. The keyboards are to the fore here and there’s a touch more fury in the vocal delivery. Doris Brendel, adding colour and flavour on backing vocals throughout the album, gives this track a hint of ‘Great Gig In the Sky’ oomph.
The words on this track in particular are obviously autobiographical, but there’s no suggestion of resting on laurels. The ‘grey bearded warrior, a poet of no mean acclaim’ tells us ‘I’ve formed the opinion that things can’t stay as they are/My anger and my fury trapped like a wasp in a jar/It’s never too late to make a brave new start/When the revolution is called I will play my part.’
There are plans to tour this album next year, but with so much uncertainly currently swirling around live music, it’s an even-money shot that Fish will get his revolution first. By then, this reviewer might just have peeled back a few more onion-layers of lyrical and musical density. For now, it’s clear that this is a rich, accessible, profound album invested with heaps of integrity, passion and insight. ‘Weltschmerz’ stands as the best album of Fish’s solo career, and easily amongst the best of the year by anyone. *****
Review by Dave Atkinson
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