Style: Progressive Rock
Release Date: 25 Sep 2020
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Weltschmerz is a German word that encapsulates "a deep sadness about the inadequacy or imperfection of the world", meaning world-weariness on a personal level or the world's pain when cast wider. It's not surprising, therefore, that this is likely to be Fish's final release, but it refers more to the world around him than anything to do with his creativity or need to work. It actually means that the subject matter is even more serious than usual and even more dark and that takes an initial toll on our response.
Grace of God is a solid opener. Man with a Stick is a solid follow up, Fish sounding a little like Sting on this one. Walking on Eggshells continues the trend. These are good songs and they grow too with each listen, but they're serious, dark, introspective songs, full of, well, weltschmerz.
When the Party's Over is the first song to really grab me, because it's livelier, perkier and even more interesting musically behind Fish's voice, with fiddles, tin whistles and saxophones livening it up considerably. It's a very different garden party to Garden Party, cynical in different ways, a political rant not against a particular party but against all of them and the system that employs them.
Then we get the first epic, Rose of Damacus, reminding of just how generous this album is. There are only ten tracks on offer like, say, Marillion's Misplaced Childhood, but that wrapped up in 41 minutes. At that point on this album, the fifteen minute Rose of Damascus hasn't quite finished yet and, when it does, we're only at the halfway point, with the second half still to come a few seconds longer than the first.
Seven minutes in, this gets really interesting. Fish starts reciting, as if this is transitioning from song to poem, and the strings build to underpin his words emotionally. He's done this a lot on later solo albums. A couple of minutes later, it finds a new tone and moves on. There's a lot going on here and it isn't just found in the lyrics, which cover dark subjects from cancer and dementia to self harm and suicide. Fish appropriately sings on the title track that "My melancholy aspect is something you can't disregard."
This is clearly an incredibly accomplished release. Fish sounds great and his words, always his real voice, are biting and topical, but Musically, it's fascinating too. Steve Vantsis appears to be his key songwriting partner here, contributing the music behind Fish's words. Fish has talked about the process used here being similar to that used during the early days of Marillion, taking bits and pieces of ideas and patching them together into songs, but this doesn't remotely sound like early Marillion, mostly because the music accompanies rather than partners.
When songs start out instrumentally, like Little Man What Now?, we can't help but feel that the music is setting the stage for the vocals to come rather than telling its own stories in parallel to that of the words. That said, it's admirably diverse and as wildly interesting as any accompanying music that I've heard before. There are strings here and synths and marimbas and organ and loops, and they're put to very effective use, some songs being bleak and distant, like Garden of Remembrance, but others, like Weltschmerz, being lush and dense.
I'm a big fan of the backing vocals of Doris Brendel, sparsely used but incredibly effective, used more like an instrument than a voice and providing some fantastic textures. I'm very fond of the saxophone that shows up on a few songs, including Little Man What Now?, courtesy of David Jackson of Van der Graaf Generator fame. The rhythms are fantastic too, often sounding like they're not coming from a drumkit but a collection of handheld or other drums. I presume they're the work of Dave Stewart, a long time Fish collaborator but also a member of Camel.
Fish and Marillion came up recently in discussion on Facebook, the majority of admittedly old school rock fans fondly remembering the early days when they were one band and dismissing everything that came after the split. Now, I'm not part of that majority. I enjoy solo Fish and I enjoy solo Marillion, happy with the fact that the two really did take their own musical journeys into very different places. Sometimes the old "musical differences" cliché is true. That said, I don't believe that either Fish or Marillion have come close to the magnificent accomplishment that was Script for a Jester's Tear (and its associated non-album singles).
Do I want to change that thought, now I've heard Weltschmerz? No, I don't believe so, but this is an album I want to explore deeper. I appreciated it more than I enjoyed it on a first listen, but as I get to know the songs through further listens, they affirm their power. Some have called this the best thing Fish has done since the early eighties and I don't believe I'm going to argue with that.
I'm going with a 7/10 for now, because this sometimes feels as long as it is, with some of its longer pieces perhaps overdone. My favourite songs right now aren't necessary the shortest ones, though This Party's Over is still a standout, but when the longer ones grabbed me, they're the eight minutes of Grace of God or the ten of Little Man What Now? rather than the thirteen of Waverley Steps or the fifteen of Rose of Damascus. But this is a deep album, one to explore. I may well up my rating to an 8/10 later.