19 April 1999
The concept of the “imperial phase” is generally not useful for outlining the general trends of an artist’s discography. It’s too limited; by invoking the concept you’re fitting everything the artist has ever done into exactly three periods: the period during which they achieved the greatest critical and commercial acclaim, and the period on either side. Bowie, for instance. His imperial phase lasted roughly from Space Oddity to about Dancing in the Street. Staking out those singles as both sides of a distinct era says very little about what he was doing with either song, and the way he’d evolved as an artist during that period. Steven Wilson’s imperial phase, meanwhile, begins with In Absentia and ends with The Incident, and that point in his career says more about what people expect from him than what he himself was actually up to. This taxonomy is fundamentally more about people’s reactions to the music than about the music itself. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try for a quick salvage job.
The imperial phase is generally something built up to and expanded outward from. You can, in retrospect, tell that the man responsible for The Laughing Gnome would eventually go on to write Space Oddity. Likewise, it’s also clear that the man who unleashed Linton Samuel Dawson upon the world would grow and evolve to the point where he’d also give us Blackest Eyes. Those two songs definitely existed in their respective artists’ ideaspaces when they were just starting out, albeit formless and void, low on the horizon. They just needed to be whacked into shape, a process largely facilitated not by conscious thought but through the particular ways in which their careers would take shape over the years, through their influences and life experiences.
The post-imperial phase, meanwhile, can go one of two ways: the sound can either ossify or diversify. Sellout-era Genesis and Phil Collins’ solo career together represent a notorious example of the former. Bowie was fortunate enough to have the latter; his post-imperial discography includes gems such as I’m Afraid of Americans, his collaborations with Placebo and Arcade Fire, and, of course, the Thomas Ligotti fever dream that is Blackstar. A diversified artist’s post-imperial work may not be as consistently good as their imperial work, but it is often just as interesting, if not more so.
(This is related, though distinct, to the universe-is-a-hyperboloid concept tossed around earlier, as a good candidate for a musician’s inflection point is the moment their imperial phase ends. The subject of this post, for example, has one sometime in October 1988.)
Field of Crows
Fish, then. His imperial phase consists of his last two albums with Marillion, the ones that gave us Kayleigh and The Last Straw and multiple UK Top 40 singles and the associated megastardom. His post-imperial phase consists of his entire solo career. Everything he produced from when he left Marillion up to this album could be adequately described as Fish Figuring Out Himself, expelling everything he couldn’t do with Marillion, trying on different styles, and finally stripping himself back to rediscover what made him a great musician in the first place. The results are uneven, but Fish’s evolution as a solo artist is clear and we still got some excellent songs out of it.
Hence, Raingods With Zippos, the best album of Fish’s solo career. In some ways it’s a counterpoint to Stupid Dream. Where Stupid Dream starts out strong and begins to flounder about halfway through, Raingods starts out rocky (Tumbledown is one of those songs that has a spectacular intro—in this case a beautiful piano piece—but when it actually kicks in it’s such a step down that you feel you’re the victim of a bait-and-switch; fortunately the piano returns at the end of Rites of Passage) but two or three songs in it finds its footing and we get, all in a row, the low thrum of Incomplete, the folk-inflected masochism tango of Tilted Cross, and the demented, off-kilter Faith Healer and its twitchy violin solo.
Which brings us to the Plague of Ghosts suite. Out of everything here, it’s probably the most…forward-thinking, as it took all the electronic experiments from his previous albums and brought them to their natural conclusion. The point of progressive music is to progress, and here’s Fish taking his music in a direction that might not be traditionally progressive, and may have 1999 written all over it, but here he does something interesting with it. Here’s 90s No-Man-inflected trip-hop in Digging Deep, burbling ambience in Chocolate Frogs, and a transition to a frenetic drum-n-bass beat in Waving at Stars, a bridge between the psychedelia-soaked origins of electronic music and its present. It’s only with the piano-driven Raingods Dancing and Wake-Up Call that we’re brought back to more familiar territory. This is Fish showing off the new stuff he’s learned in this vein over the past decade, and it’s great. It’s science fair presentations like this that are the bread and butter of a proper post-imperial phase.
Wilson takes more of a step back with this one, this time playing guitar on about half the album. With the exception of the more funky touches he brings to Digging Deep, much of his guitar work makes the suite feel like Fish’s own interpretation of The Sky Moves Sideways, Phase I. It’s a nice effect, giving the Plague of Ghosts suite a solid psychedelic foundation for Fish to play around with.
Postscript: yes, that Rick Astley co-wrote Mission Statement.
Going forward, well, most of Fish’s direct collaborations with Wilson this century involve bear hugs in bars and that’s about it. Nevertheless, Fish’s and Wilson’s stories would intersect two more times.
Sometime between Lightbulb Sun and In Absentia, as Wilson was winding down I.E.M., Fish would release Fellini Days. This was a darker and less baroque record than its predecessor, with Fish himself depending more on his lower register, continually straying further from the superficial light poppiness that early critics had saddled him with. The track from this album that sticks in my head the most is The Pilgrim’s Address, in which Fish positions himself as a not-entirely-naive war veteran faux-innocently making a mockery of his commander-in-chief by turning his own empty patriotism and hollow invocation of American Values back on him. He knows the wars he fought were in the service of unchecked greed and imperialist aggression more than anything else, but what he wants is a public acknowledgement that Mister President realizes this on some level as well.
Here’s why this song works: whenever Wilson plays a character in a song it’s always at somewhat of a remove, like he’s more interested in psychoanalyzing than acting. This is fine for what he’s setting out to do, for the record, as most of his characters are rather repulsive people; a rogue’s gallery of terrorists, serial killers, cult leaders, shut-ins, and various other creeps and weirdos. Fish’s characters, meanwhile, are generally innocent people who’ve fallen victim to circumstance in some fashion, whether it be something as small as a breakup or as large as a war. We’re invited to place ourselves in their shoes and sympathize with them, and the effect is palpable. The Pilgrim’s Address is the rawest song on Fellini Days, and upon realizing precisely how much power he’s tapped in to with this particular lyricism, Fish would eventually start doing the same trick at least once an album. Where in the World off 13th Star, the central suite of A Feast of Consequences, and Waverley Steps off Weltschmerz are especially gut-punching.
So how’s Wilson involved in all this? He isn’t. At least, not directly. However, as it happens, during this time Fish had cultivated a nice working relationship with a gentleman who’d opened for him on several world tours, and who would co-write and play guitar on this album. This is, of course, Mr John Wesley, the same gentleman who’d soon become a touring member of and occasional studio presence with Porcupine Tree.
Wilson’s most recent intersection with Fish’s world comes through his remix of Misplaced Childhood in 2017, which, as it’s also the earliest album of his that he’s directly, materially interacted with, feels like the closing of a circle.
A Feast of Consequences
Fish is retiring from music. He’s hit sixty now, and he’s been having some health problems, and he’s been spending a lot of time tending to his garden, and besides he thinks of himself more as a writer who sings than a singer and it’s Just Time. The current plan is one last tour and one last album, and then he’s done for good. He’s released a preview EP, A Parley with Angels, and what’s there sounds like an evolution of what’s appeared on 13th Star and A Field of Consequences. I’m cautiously optimistic about how the finished product will sound, especially since during the recording process it’s apparently spiraled out of control and become a double album.
It’s not quite accurate to say that a double album is a tricky beast to pull off. An album is as long as it needs to be, after all. But creating a double album does present two unique and not unrelated challenges: the ability to make it cohere such that it doesn’t seem like a scattershot braindump with no quality control, and the ability to consistently hold the listener’s attention. From what I’ve heard, it sounds like the result will land anywhere from “particularly good late Derek Dick” to “bloated hot mess.” It’ll probably be a little of both. Fish wants this to be the defining record of his career, but “overstuffed” was never a mode he really operated in before now. This will be new and exciting for both artist and listener.
The current date to tie everything off is 2020. Once he retires, I imagine he may pop up for little one-off gigs here and there, but mostly he’ll be puttering away out at the greenhouse.
Honestly, though, I’m not sure a final album necessarily needs to be a Defining Statement. The chunks of Weltschmerz released on Parley with Angels doesn’t sound like a transcendently beautiful statement of purpose that sums up not just the musical career but in fact the very essence of the man called Derek Dick, but that’s okay. Neither was Blackstar or Tim Drum or Clutching at Straws. A final album only needs to be, in the words of Kieron Gillen, a full stop with ideas above its station.
Besides, Fish’s already written his magnum opus. Much of the front half of Raingods with Zippos sounds like something from Fish’s earlier solo career, while the back half—from about Faith Healer on—sounds like Fish discovering where he wants to go from there. As a result, Raingods encapsulates Fish’s solo career more completely than Weltschmerz ever could. The album’s overall effect is of a man walking audibly from the past to the future, and as the final song fades out on Nicola King’s repeated “we can make it happen,” we too are left behind as we move into a different future of our own making.