The exhausted album. The long dark nighttime of the soul album. It has been around as long as the LP has been more than a collection of singles, and to some, these records have a glamour all their own.
When released, they are often misunderstood or ignored, only to be perennially rediscovered by record collectors and rock critics looking for something on the darker side. Such albums as There’s a Riot Goin’ On, Third/Sister Lovers and Exile on Main Street capture frustration and addiction on vinyl with vivid detail, throwing listeners into the bottomless pit of doom, dirge, and suspect mixing.
The ‘90s was a ripe time for darkness. The decade saw the commercialization of emotional bankruptcy as less creative artists imitated the suicide-chic of Kurt Cobain and the relentless nihilism of Tupac. In those days, English prog-rock band Marillion was a decade beyond its greatest chart success—1985’s Misplaced Childhood— and feeling the constant pressure of a band nearing the end of a major label contract.
When the band first started, it was at the forefront of a short-lived progressive rock revival in early 1980s England with a theatrical, six foot tall force of nature named Fish on vocals. With a defiant Scottish brogue and some Peter Hammill-inspired poetic lyrics, he personified the band to many fans as the group trucked on through four albums of meandering suites and sharp singles.
After reaching the top five in the British charts again with Clutching at Straws, the frontman and band parted ways. As Fish began his solo career, Marillion’s instrumentalists quickly found singer and session keyboardist Steve Hogarth, until then best known as a The The and Julian Cope sideman. After several albums spent sorting through its past in search of a new sound, Marillion spent 15 months recording what would become 1994’s Brave.
It was a commercial flop, completely out of sync with the Britpop that was all the rage in Marillion’s native land. After this, there was no chance EMI would invest the same amount of money as it did on Brave. The follow-up album would have to be recorded quickly and cheaply.
To insure this, producer Dave Meegan would sit in on the work from the first song written to the final song mastered to help the band maintain focus. Meegan attended their jam sessions and selected the raw material for the songs as Hogarth and his friend John Helmer wrote lyrics to express the dislocation they were feeling.
Marillion had always preferred to populate its songs with characters; Fish had masked his tales of drug and emotional abuse in stories, and the more direct Hogarth sang his best lyrics as the semi-fictional protagonist of Brave. This album would be no different.
Immersed in the O.J. Simpson case, struck by the death of Kurt Cobain, and fascinated by Scorsese’s “Raging Bull”, the lyricists refracted their own experiences through the lenses of these men. Though the band retained a fascination with studio trickery and irregular song structures, its sound became more modern under Meegan’s influence.
“Gazpacho” opens with Steve Rothery’s chiming guitar figure and Pete Trewavas’ hyperactive Blur-like bassline, as Hogarth conflates the stories of Jake LaMotta and O.J. Simpson. The track introduces the themes that will emerge over the next seven tracks, as Hogarth, at the edge of his range, sings, “Raging like a bull to an empty ring / Do you think that they’ll forgive a hero anything?” The song changes to an ominous chant of “Now your ring is just a band of gold,” as a news recording plays of Simpson’s car chase.
The album’s centerpiece is “Out of This World”. Questioning the very motives behind fame, the song’s inspiration was British daredevil Donald Campbell, who died attempting to break the water speed record in 1967. After two elliptical verses, the drums are muted and the recording of Campbell’s last radio transmission can be heard. Over a wash of keyboards, Hogarth sings “What the hell do we want / Is it only to go / Where nobody has gone?”
If “Out of This World” is the enterpiece, “Beyond You” is the psychic nadir. Channeling Phil Spector both in production and in its obsessive lyrics, the song is as unsettling as it is compelling. The vocal melody in the verses is minimal, with Hogarth muttering and mumbling in his lowest register before the spectacular release of the chorus. As he sings of “a hole in my body aching” during the bridge, the ache and exhaustion comes through in his voice.
The closing meditation, “King,” is a tantrum focused on Elvis and Kurt. Rather than surrender to the loneliness and pressure of fame, the song challenges those who embrace it. As the instrumental backing crumbles around him, Hogarth hoarsely sings, “I hope for your sake / You’ve got what it takes / To be spoilt to death”.
Helped neither by the laughable adult contemporary fluff that was the band’s video for the single “Beautiful” nor the strange album cover of an angel standing in front of a circular flame, Afraid of Sunlight disappeared upon its release. A cohesive fan base had not survived the seven years since Fish’s departure and a hardcore following would not rematerialize until the internet boom. Indeed, Marillion would become one of music’s great web success stories when fan campaigns fronted the money to pay for the group’s 1997 American tour and its last three self-released albums.
Remarkably, the band has come to a comfortable stasis, owing no money or music to a label and playing only for its fans; freedom from the responsibilities and pressures of the pop-life rat race. They had stared that game right in the face and refused to play anymore, leaving EMI to sell the album to a nation gripped by Cool Britannia. It would take Blur a few years and Oasis a decade to realize the party wouldn’t last forever. Rather than deal with the trivialities of celebrity, Afraid of Sunlight examines the larger issue: What happens when we achieve all our wildest dreams and we have nothing left to do but hold on for as long as we can?
// Notes from the Road
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