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A state of mind is a contagious thing...
on 26 October 2008
About this time of year, people (at least, the people who do this kind of thing) tend to start compiling their list of albums of the year, and everyone else gets ready to throw things at them. I don't do album of the year lists... but Marillion have just released their fifteenth studio album, Happiness Is The Road, and in doing so may just have released the record of their lives.
Now, as any Marillion fan knows, the difficulty in turning people onto the band isn't because their music is difficult to listen to or no longer relevant to any but a small audience, but in getting them to listen to the music in the first place. In a world where Coldplay, Snow Patrol and others sell millions of units through a combination of delicate sentiment and epic bombast, and where Bono and Dave Gilmour still only have to burp into a mic to make the top ten, there's no real reason that Marillion can't be two, three, four times bigger than they are.
Happiness Is The Road, comprising two separate albums, Essence and The Hard Shoulder, should by rights be the album that does the trick... but then we've thought that before, with the sublime 2004 double album Marbles and back in 1995 with the incomparable Afraid Of Sunlight (an album so good even most of the mainstream critics couldn't fault it). Even with these points of comparison, Happiness Is The Road is genuinely fantastic stuff, playing to all of Marillion's many strengths in 2008 and precious few of their weaknesses. If you're after cathartic widescreen angst, we have 'Real Tears For Sale', and 'Half The World', 'Especially True' and 'A State Of Mind' provide soaring, dynamic pop, while the heartfelt epic is ably represented by the stunning title track and the quixotic 'The Man From The Planet Marzipan'.
But this is to be expected from Marillion - they've made their name on the above formula, if you can call it that. What continues to delight about Happiness Is The Road is the nuance, the oddness, the left field. The deliriously Motownesque 'Nothing Fills The Hole'... the off-kilter pop of 'Throw Me Out', recalling David Byrne... the gorgeously elegiac 'Trap The Spark', which manages to pull off the Flaming Lips' brand of existential whimsy as if covered by Sigur Ros... the dub groove to 'Happiness Is The Road' itself, with a sudden and jaw-dropping John Williams-style orchestral section sitting behind the middle eight, just where a guitar solo would ordinarily be... the Bollywood strings gradually building in every chorus to 'Woke Up'... the fact that 'Especially True' can suck you in by sounding like a poppier Editors until the final ninety seconds, which descend into the kind of wall of churning guitar you might hear on a Queens Of The Stone Age record.
Lyrically, this is the most consistently uplifting Steve 'h' Hogarth has ever been - not surprising, when the first CD, Essence, has as its theme redemptive self-discovery. He's clearly had four or five epiphanies since 2007's more downbeat Somewhere Else, and it shows, his unforced clarity of vision marking almost all of Happiness Is The Road's nineteen songs - upbeat but not shallow, giving us depth without being pompous. The results are exhilarating, and often inspirational, no more so than in the title track, with the bridge "your mind will find a way to be unkind to you somehow... but all we really have is happening to us right now."
It's a testament to the unique position Marillion find themselves in that, fifteen albums and thirty years on from their beginnings, they still sound entirely like themselves while evolving and changing on every album. That's why 'Real Tears For Sale' sounds a little off closing The Hard Shoulder... recalling a Marillion of sixteen, seventeen years ago, it sits oddly with the remainder of Happiness Is The Road. But it's a halfhearted complaint when the results are so damn good, probably the most viciously self-excoriating lyric h has ever recorded ("even whores don't kiss with tongues"), as he berates himself for turning every good and bad thing that's ever happened to him into words for more songs, comparing this selling of himself to the vagaries of celebrity culture, setting out his market stall with pieces of his life to pay the bills. It's circular logic - he's just written a song about it - but undeniably powerful. I just think maybe it belonged on Somewhere Else... 'The Man From The Planet Marzipan', with its fey, arch depiction of our world seen through truly alien eyes, seems a better fit to finish this truly remarkable album. But as quibbles go, it's a ridiculously minor one. This is a masterpiece.