Marillion has been around for three decades, gaining some commercial success in the UK back in the ‘80s but not much since. They’ve never stopped plugging along, through a divisive change of lead singers in the late ‘80s and through significant record label difficulties in the late ‘90s. But aside from their sizable cult following and hardcore prog-rock fans, the band is virtually unknown outside of their native England. So without any shot of ever getting on something like MTV Unplugged or VH1 Storytellers, Marillion has gone ahead and made their own acoustic album, featuring stripped-down versions of songs from 20 years’ worth of albums.
The band rearranges many of these songs to divest them of some of their prog-rock hallmarks. Gone are the long, complex instrumental passages and massive guitar solos. Instead the emphasis is on the lyrics of lead singer Steve Hogarth and his collaborator John Helmer, and on the songwriting itself. The acoustic arrangements also allow the band to throw in piles of extra percussion instruments to give the songs a more organic feel. Finger cymbals, glockenspiel, xylophone, autoharp, and hammered dulcimer all make multiple appearances throughout the album. Fortunately Marillion is canny enough to keep all of these instruments as background elements, complementing the existing music instead of overwhelming it.
As to the songs themselves, I feel as if I’m coming to this album all backwards. Despite having been aware of Marillion for a while, this is my first experience actually hearing a full album from the band. Helpfully, the band includes information about where each song first appeared in the liner notes, making it easy for newcomers to track down the original versions. What’s here is generally high-quality, with a few caveats. The album opens strong with the pair of “Go!” and “Interior Lulu.” The former starts quietly, with just Hogarth’s voice accompanied by a harmonium. The lyrics plead with an unknown person to make a change in their life, as the music gradually swells to include guitar, strings, and percussion before finally opening up into a cathartic chorus in the song’s final minute. “Lulu” distills a song that was originally 15 minutes long into just over seven. The song concerns internet-using shut-ins, and the band pulls out nearly every instrument in their arsenal here and makes it work. The xylophone-dominated opening feeds into the bongo-backed second section. Bell trees, harmonium, and even Portugese guitar add colors to the track.
After that opening, the next few songs blur together a bit. They aren’t bad, just not on the same level. The unabashedly poppy “Hard as Love” is the next real attention-grabber, cast here as a piano ballad. Keyboardist Mark Kelly’s glockenspiel expertly echoes Hogarth’s wordless melody in between the verses, which are filled with comparisons to love and the hardness of things. What things? Let’s see, there’s “sticks and stones”, “algebra”, and “six inch nails”. The sentiment is nice and the song is strong, even if the lyrics slip into cheesy clichés. “Quartz” is notable for its complicated xylophone-glockenspiel duet, but not much else. “If My Heart Were a Ball It Would Roll Uphill” is a funky little song with strong bass work from Pete Trewavas and great organ playing from Kelly. But the refrain (which is the title) is supposed to soar and Hogarth can’t seem to hit the high notes when he tries to sing the words “ball” and “uphill.” It makes it a little painful. The album’s only new song is the simple “It’s Not Your Fault”, featuring Hogarth alone on piano and vocals. It’s a sad, beautiful song that doesn’t try too hard to be clever lyrically. This works to Hogarth’s advantage.
The disc proper is supposed to end with the gentle pleading of “This Is the 21st Century”, but the album goes on for three more songs, one classified as “hidden” and two as “bonus tracks”. The hidden track, “Cannibal Surf Babe”, is the only moment of lightness, a song driven by a funky bassline and active drums. But Hogarth’s attempt to write funny lyrics doesn’t really work, instead coming off a bit awkward, as the titular surf babe announces that she “was born in nineteen sixty-weird” again and again. The first of two live bonus tracks, “Runaway” doesn’t really stand out in any way aside from some interesting stage banter describing the concept of the album at the end. The second bonus track is the band’s rendition of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees.” It’s a curiosity that turns out to be a solid but workmanlike cover.
While every song on the album isn’t a standout, Less Is More does accomplish a lot. It’s a nice answer to the usual critical drubbing bands in the progressive rock genre take for musical wankery, the emphasis on technical skill over memorable songwriting. Marillion is able to show that they have the songwriting chops to radically rearrange songs for a new set of instruments and still have them hold up. While it probably won’t expand their core audience much, this is a worthwhile effort worth checking out.