A Fish Out Of Water? My Reappraisal Of The Solo Career Of Fish

I am a longtime fan of Fish, first and foremost for his phenomenal work with Marillion in the 1980’s.  The four studio albums that he helped to create with Marillion hold a special place in my heart.  His final studio album with the band, Clutching At Straws (1987), has had a profound impact on my progressive rock musical preferences.  

Fish and Marillion have never been the same since their split in 1988. Marillion has remained one of my favorite progressive rock bands. I love much of the music created by Marillion with Steve Hogarth as the front man.  I count Seasons End (1989), Holidays In Eden (1991) and Brave (1994) among my favorite Marillion albums. However, some of the music of the Hogarth era does not quite hit the same sweet spot as the Fish era.  In regards to Fish, as a solo artist his music has been somewhat hit or miss for me.  A good deal of his output as a solo artist, I hate to say, has left me disappointed. Because of the impact of his work with  Marillion I have been, for many years, willing to give his solo career great consideration.  Until recently the last album by Fish that I purchased was his 2004 album Field Of Crows.  That album left me feeling underwhelmed.  When his next album, 13th Star (2007), was released I did not rush out to buy a copy.   At the time I did not feel like I was missing out on anything.

Fish is currently swimming in a sea of rave reviews for his recent double album Weltschmerz (2020).  He has stated that his latest album will be his final one. Many fans and critics are declaring that Weltschmerz is his best solo album. I recently purchased the album and I am in the process of getting to know the music. At this point I have not spent enough time with Weltschmerz to form a complete opinion.  So far I am truly enjoying what I am hearing.  If this is indeed his last album it will be a great accomplishment to go out on such a high note.  The buzz surrounding Weltschmerz caught my attention late last year.  That positive buzz from fans and  critics along with another Marillion related event caught my attention late last year.  Both of these events combined to form the springboard for my reappraisal of the solo albums of Fish.   I must give credit to Nathaniel Webb’s  recent book, Marillion In The 1980’s.  Reading his book sparked in me a desire to re-evaluate the solo work of Fish. 

Let me start by going back to the beginning of my journey with Fish. I became a Marillion fan in 1987 when I heard the album Clutching At Straws.  I read an unfavorable review where the author angrily stated that the album sounded just like Genesis. Being an enormous Genesis fan this review piqued my interest. I purchased the album without hearing a note and my musical life was forever changed. Everything about the album absolutely blew me away.  After devouring this masterpiece it was a no-brainer when I purchased the band’s previous albums. The music of Marillion and the vocals and lyrics of Fish totally captivated me.  One can imagine my utter disappointment when it was announced in 1988 that Fish had left the band.  Reading that news was akin to receiving a gut punch.  I had just discovered this incredible band and less than a year later their fantastic singer decides to leave.  I initially found it difficult connecting with the subsequent music produced by Marillion. It was my reappraisal, years later, of the band that eventually led to my great love and admiration of Hogarth-era Marillion. 

My first experience with Fish as a solo artist came with his second solo album, Internal Exile (1991). Looking back, that album gave me an extremely false sense of hope.  I know that everyone has differing opinions and preferences about the music of Fish. Internal Exile is the only Fish solo album that I would put on the same level as his work with Marillion.  Every other Fish album pales in comparison. At times, over the years, as I listened to his solo albums I was left baffled. He seemed like a fish out of water,  flopping about and gasping for air.  What happened to the brilliance that he displayed in Marillion?  Each of his solo albums was one disappointment after another. Yet I kept buying his albums, hoping for something to speak to me, to move me.  I found many of the songs to be unremarkable and indifferent.  The music that he made with Marillion has left such a imprint on my heart.  Internal Exile was the one album where everything came together for Fish.  The album contains compelling songwriting, crisp production, Fish’s richly poetic lyrics and melodic vocal melodies.  Based on the songwriting and production credits on all of his other albums I am left with one conclusion.  I can only assume that the one most responsible for the quality of Internal Exile is the producer Chris Kimsey.  It is unfortunate that Kimsey did not produce any of Fish’s other solo albums.     

I would be hard pressed to classify the solo work of Fish as progressive rock.  At best one might call his overall body of work mainstream art rock.  Throughout his career the music of Fish has been a mixture of classic rock, roots rock, folk rock, world music, pop and bits of progressive rock. The genre that Fish has chosen to work within has not been an issue for me.  My biggest criticism of his solo albums has been the songwriting.  Fish excels at working poetic lyrics.  His singing voice as well as his vocal delivery are quite unique and extremely appealing. His biggest asset has always been his voice.  However, not playing an instrument has been his biggest deficiency.   For better or worse Fish has been dependent on other musicians to create his music. Unfortunately he never found songwriters as strong as the members of Marillion.  As the years have passed by it seemed as if Fish fell into a bit of comfort zone with his vocals.  At times his music leaned towards simplistic song structures.  Far too often the music is plagued by generic guitar riffs and musical motifs.    On top of this foundation Fish has been allowed to fully express his abundant lyrical ideas.  However, that expression is not as potent as it could be. Much of the music of Fish’s solo albums is not as interesting as his lyrics.  His vocals carry the songs and his voice is often times the greatest appeal with his albums. 

One asset of the past that Fish was able to bring into his solo career is the fantastic artwork of Mark Wilkinson.  After Fish left Marillion the remaining members opted to go in a vastly different direction with their album covers.  Wilkinson stayed with Fish and provided the artwork for the majority of his solo releases.  The album covers are not as strikingly original as the work he created for Marillion.  However, his meticulous artwork and attention to detail have given Fish a wonderful legacy of eye catching artwork related to his music. 

Some of my criticisms of the solo music of Fish may seem a bit harsh.  For years I had a heavy expectation of what Fish’s solo career could and should sound like.  I can admit now that those unrealistic expectations colored the way that I listened to his albums for years. Listening to his solo catalog with fresh ears, a new mindset and realistic expectations has changed the way that I now hear his albums. I have a newfound appreciation and respect for his music.  Overall I still have a slight sense of disappointment. It feels as though Fish never reached his full potential as a solo artist.  The majority of the music produced for his solo career is inferior to his work with Marillion.  Surrounding himself with better songwriters and producers would have benefited Fish immensely. I am sure that financial constraints may have led to some of  his choices.      

Here in 2021 I know what to expect from the music of Fish.    The main focus of his albums seems to be on his lyrics and vocals.  The music comes across as a secondary concern.   I never truly gave up on Fish because he had such an impact on my progressive rock journey in the late 1980’s.  I am enjoying this reappraisal of the solo career of one of the great figures in progressive rock.  As a fan I never felt that Fish had to pursue progressive rock as a solo artist.  If he had opted to continue to explore that direction that would have been fantastic.  Regardless of the genre I just wanted him to create captivating and moving music. Fish seems quite content to utilize mainstream rock music as a vehicle to express his poetic lyrics.   Some of his solo albums are far from great, but I am learning to truly enjoy them for what they are.  Internal Exile remains the one Fish album that totally satisfies me. Albums such as Fellini Days (2001), Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors (1990), A Feast Of Consequences (2013) and Suits (1994) come somewhat close to hitting the mark.  Other album such as Raingods With Zippos (1999), 13th Star (2007) and Field Of Crows (2004) suffer a bit due to uneven songwriting.  I am glad that I have embarked on this journey exploring anew the music of Fish. Taking this deep dive into the ocean that is Fish’s solo career is proving to be a worthwhile experience.  It is amazing what a slight change in mindset can produce.

Troy T.

3 thoughts on “A Fish Out Of Water? My Reappraisal Of The Solo Career Of Fish

  1. I agree, Fish is incredibly gifted with his lyrics. Over the solo career he brought together many talented musicians, but the songwriting just was not as strong as what he was a part of with Marillion. What he did with Marillion was spectacular and deeply impacted me. His impact will continue through his solo career as I have a new appreciation for his post Marillion output.

    Like

  2. Nice piece. As a Marillion fan since 82-83, I agree with much of your enthusiasm of the Fish era.
    You note that his solo career mostly missed the mark for you and that is understandable. Fish is undeniably one of , if not the greatest wordsmiths of all time. However, the music must be close to or at least on par to bring the songs together. Here is where the talented musicians of Marillion shine.
    While Fish had some notable musicians to work with the bands he pulled together foe much of his work lacked the chemistry of Marillion’s talented bunch.

    However, Fish’s impact on the world of music will always remain, be fondly remembered and sorely missed by many of his fans.

    Liked by 1 person

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