Marillion "Clutching at Straws"

Well does PW remember seeing Marillion in a smallish club in Boston. We were only moderately acquainted with the venerable British band at the time, and went out of a sense of curiosity more than anything else. Although the years of their peak influence were long behind them, we knew their importance to people in “the scene” and, frankly, we were curious what the big deal was.

Hearing the packed, sweaty crowd singing passionately along to “Sugar Mice” was an illuminating experience, as it began to dawn on us, sluggards that we are, why it was that the significance of this band had long eluded us: It was all about the lyrics.

Since PW was a wee lad, shedding Rush tunes on an unplayable nylon-string, music has always been about instrumental drama, arrangements, and melodies. Lyrics were important in that singers had to hang their melodies on something, but with the exception of Neil Peart’s we only rarely thought that lyrics added something so important to a song that some other words couldn’t do equally as well.

For most normal people, this must surely sound like an insane belief. But, as this essay is being penned, Physical Graffiti is spinning on the turntable. Robert Plant is, obviously, indispensable to Led Zeppelin. Is there anyone out there who would argue that his lyrics- with a couple of notable exceptions- are as well?

Not so with the words penned by singer Fish for Clutching at Straws. A concept record (seemingly at least partially autobiographical) about a musician struggling with addiction and plumbing the depths of miserable self-loathing, the text is essential to the spirit of the album. Consider colorful lines such as “I saw teenage girls like gaudy moths/Flirt in the glow of stranded telephone boxes” from “Warm Wet Circles,” or “If you want my address it’s number one at the end of the bar/Where I sit with the broken angels clutching at straws and nursing our scars” from “Sugar Mice.”

The band is on point, of course; they have always been compared to Genesis, but with this album the points of comparison are more general than specific. That is to say, like Banks, Hackett, et al. their brand of prog is song-based and ensemble-oriented, with few fiddly bits. And, above all, with exquisite Rush Lines, full of clear, clean narrative flow, serving at all times the text of the lyrics.

It’s a good lesson for us all, especially those of us who write songs in odd meters and attempt to make “artistic statements.”

Happy New Year, everyone.


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