Clutching At Straws


Sanctuary Records, 1987

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


After spending just over a year listening to Marillion's Misplaced Childhood and trying to decipher the story behind the album, I decided that when it came time for me to review Clutching At Straws, the band's 1987 release (and last studio album with vocalist Fish), I wasn't going to try and psychoanalyze the disc. Instead, I was going to approach it based solely on the musical and lyrical content; any story line would have to wait for when I actually had time to go over it like the Zapruder film.

It has been suggested by at least one band member that maybe the smartest thing Marillion could have done around this time was to take a break and let their sudden fame sink in. Clutching At Straws suggests that this might have been the best path for them to take as well. While this is by no means a bad album, it doesn't really build on the success that Misplaced Childhood brought them. Instead, this album seems to try and tie up their entire career to that point - a move that doesn't work quite as well as the band would have hoped.

There are two outstanding performances on Clutching At Straws - one of them being the single "Sugar Mice," a track which is hauntingly beautiful and suggests the fragility that both Fish and his fellow band members felt at that point in their careers. The other, surprisingly, is "Just For The Record," another song in which it seems like Fish is pouring out his soul and all of his faults for all to scrutinize. It's a bold piece of music, and one which is not quickly forgotten.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

This all said, Marillion does two things on Clutching At Straws which are curious. The first is that they start building the album up as another constant piece - that is, without segues between the songs. In a sense, this process seems to work (though, after Misplaced Childhood, it hardly seems original), and I could have easily accepted a second album in this vein. But after the first three songs, Clutching At Straws shifts gears into a regular album, complete with fadeouts. Why they dropped the consistency of the piece after "That Time Of The Night (The Short Straw)" I don't quite understand.

The second thing that seems to unravel this work is that Marillion takes a look backwards in terms of their songwriting. "Incommunicado," one of the singles from this disc, occasionally smacks of "Market Square Heroes" or "Assassing". Backpedaling is not something that Marillion has done a lot of throughout their career, and listening to this example shows why. Simply put, it doesn't work for them.

Clutching At Straws sometimes feels like Marillion is trying to continue the story of Misplaced Childhood where it left off, only the band members are writing the story as the album progresses. As tracks like "White Russian" and "Torch Song" prove, sometimes this process ain't pretty.

The reissue of this album comes with a bonus disc of material - and, despite the warning placed early in the liner notes, the overall sound of much of the unreleased material is quite good (save for two songs, and these are just a little rough). Regrettably, these tracks really don't bring much to the table, though I do like the extended version of "Going Under," and it's nice to hear a rough version of "Sugar Mice In The Rain".

One complaint, though: why bother burying a bonus track that can only be unlocked by answering an online questionnaire - and then make that key to unlock the track good only on the PC that you took the questionnaire from? Waste of time, gang - and it's not like the rock version of "Warm Wet Circles" is a track you can't live without. (We'll encounter this one more time when we get to the review of Afraid Of Sunlight.)

Clutching At Straws seems to be Marillion's attempt to follow up an album that defies being followed up. In retrospect, it might have been better for the band to continue doing things their own way instead of trying to please the record company. Fish would bid adieu to the band, though he'd be captured on tape with them one more time on The Thieving Magpie... but that's another review for another day.

Rating: C+

User Rating: B



© 2000 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Sanctuary Records, and is used for informational purposes only.