“Rarer still that a band should still be bettering itself after nearly a quarter of a century.”
So concludes the current biography for Marillion on their Web site. Over the past 15 or so years I have listened to them, this has held true. From their attempts at more mainstream fare in 1991 with Holidays in Eden (an album lambasted by some purists but those without musical snobbery can still see some excellent songmanship there. And hey, every audience always goes bonkers when they play “Cover My Eyes”), to grittier, more post rock feats like 1998’s Radiation (admittedly my least enjoyed album from the Steve Hogarth era but still containing visible growth, maturity and solid song skill) to 2004’s Marbles, a 2-CD monster of a release that has been heralded, for very good reason, as this English five-piece’s most complete, most brilliant work since fan-favorite Brave (1994). There is a lot to love from this band, and they have time and again returned that love in full.
Three years on since Marbles, which since saw me and Dw., that erstwhile to MusicTAP brother of mine, attend our very first Marillion concerts (first in 2004 at Irving Plaza in NYC, where the line to get in snaked well down the street and around the corner), to the acoustic Los Trios Marillios (with vocalist Hogarth, bassist Pete Trewavas and guitarist Steve Rothery crossing the pond for a limited engagement tour of the U.S.) in 2005, the band has dropped Somewhere Else into our laps. Instead of production duties falling on Dave Meegan, sometimes referred to as the sixth member of the band (who produced a number of the band’s seminal works, including Marbles and Brave), this single disc release was produced by Michael Hunter, who has conducted engineer duties in the past. Songs follow a simpler route – where much of Meegan’s work can be characterized with overdubs and layer upon layer of sound, Hunter’s is a lot more straightforward, a lot more bare bones. That might be better or worse, depending on what tickles your pickle.
No matter the producer, Marillion always shines through. Hogarth’s lyrics remain honest and heartfelt, from the two-finger salute to a consumerist culture in “Most Toys” (“He who dies with the most toys is still dead”) and “The Last Century for Man” (“Here we are at the beginning of the last century for man, Usin' up parts of the world we haven't even seen or been to”) to the title track, written about the breakup of his marriage (“Everyone I love lives somewhere else. And I have time to look at myself … and I've seen enough”)
Rothery’s guitars are as solid and workmanlike as they’ve ever been, with his solo on “Somewhere Else” being one of his strongest, most emotional pieces of music since his inspired, off the cuff solo in “Easter” (from 1989’s Seasons End). Keyboardist Mark Kelly, who no longer shows off the flash like he did in the band’s pre-Hogarth days, continues to be a solid performer, as does Trewavas and drummer Ian Mosely, who, when together, have created a sound that, while bits and pieces can be compared to other artists (sounds have ranged from the classic rock, to jazz to dub to pop, names thrown about have included Radiohead, Coldplay, XTC and Talk Talk), it’s rare that one can truly be compared to another. And despite a stew of possible comparisons, they’ve never felt like they’ve had their hands in one too many musical pots. That’s always been the beauty and unmistakable identity of Marillion.
While Somewhere Else has shares of sadness (“Somewhere Else,” “A Voice from the Past”) and optimistic hope (“See it like a baby,” “Faith” – “What I have here in my heart is like faith, but not faith. For those without faith also have what I have here in my heart”), an undercurrent of darkness is apparent. It might come from the drier production, or the lack of any real “pop” songs (on Marbles, “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was very optimistic while “You’re Gone,” while not necessarily positive, had a beat that makes you forget all that), or perhaps it’s my own interpretation after hearing that Steve Hogarth’s marriage had broken up, which obviously has had an effect on his music. Marbles had sadness too, “Fantastic Place,” clearly one of the band’s most accomplished, arresting songs in their catalog, talks about losing somewhere you love, could very well have been written about a broken marriage. Even still, its sweeping melody leaves an impression upon the listener that, while things are bleak now, hope is on the horizon. Hope is always on the horizon.
That does not always come through on Somewhere Else, which may have been why the band decided they needed “Faith,” a song recorded during the Marbles sessions, to bookend the album, lest “The Last Century for Man” drive us all to off ourselves. Even “Thankyou Whoever You Are,” the band’s latest single, has somewhat of a desperate quality to it (“I won’t ask you to care/just say you’ll be there”).
In a time where our worlds are constantly changing, where 25 is considered old and 50, considered ancient, it’s hard to find a base to count on, to stabilize us. This album reflects that very well. Still, it leaves you feeling a little cold, a little scared, a little longing for happier, simpler times.