It’s been 30 years since Derek Dick, the singer, “obscure Scottish poet,” writer, occasional actor, and raconteur extraordinaire known as Fish, left Marillion and released his first solo album. The resulting decades have seen triumphs, plenty of setbacks, and enough stories to fill several VH1 Behind the Music episodes and make his long-threatened autobiography a must-read should it ever surface. Fish is a character and a gifted writer and lyricist—half Hemingway, half Peter Hammill—and his words are imbued with the peaty aromas and flavors of the soils and whiskys of his native Scotland.
Disclaimer: I always give each new Fish album a chance, but it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that old magic. The past 20 years with the big guy have been rather frustrating. There have been good songs, and albums I’ve liked (the industrial-tinged documentation of dissolution of 2007’s 13th Star caught my ear) but his rotating cast of musical collaborators, coupled with his voice being a shadow of what it was, meant I just didn’t forge strong connections with the records. I don’t put it on him—I think it’s more that I’ve changed. But I digress. Weltschmerz, his long-gestating, self-proclaimed final album ever, has finally arrived. I fully expected to listen and have a familiar reaction, to not dislike but shrug, realize I’m not the target market, and move on. I knew I’d always have Vigil and Sunsets on Empire. To my complete surprise, this album impresses.
Weltschmerz is German for “world weariness”—it’s the perfect namesake for an album saturated in the pain of having seen and lived it all. Fish has always been immersed in dramas, cunning schemes that didn’t pan out, and delays and setbacks that often seemed partially self-made. But the seven years in between 2013’s Field of Crows and present have been seriously, legitimately harrowing on his end, including but not limited to the death of his father and numerous serious health scares. The album channels grief, confronts mortality, and takes stock of, mourns for, and looks square in the eye of a world that often seems to be teetering on the brink of the abyss.
Frequent songwriting partners Steve Vatsis and Robin Boult rise to the occasion and turn in a strong set of songs, built around a sturdy mix of folk, prog, and hard rock. The Celtic ramble of “This Party’s Over” is succinct, direct and shot full of joie de vivre even as it acknowledges finality. Wistful piano ballad “Garden of Remembrance” is a stirring private conversation with a ghost; its gentle vulnerability makes it feel like a weathered, mature bookend to early single “A Gentleman’s Excuse Me.” “Man with a Stick” clatters along, punctuated with retro analog synths, and sounds as rattled as you’d expect a song that dissects the hardened brutality of authoritarian systems.
The album’s twin epics are a mixed bag. “Rose of Damascus” lingers too long, and sounds tired, as if it’s searching in vain for a way to wind it all up. But the feisty “Waverly Steps” is punctuated with bursts of brass and a rousing guitar solo in the outro. It’s a dynamic piece of music with twists and turns that match, blow for blow, Fish’s nimble vignettes. It also segues nicely into the album-closing title track, a declaration of values and purpose that spiritually hearkens back to Misplaced Childhood’s finale, “White Feather.” It’s no less defiant, even as it tempers hesitant hope with the hard lessons of age. As the final song on Fish’s final album, it’s a songwriter’s version of the politician’s final address and wave to the crowd before stepping onto the helicopter to be whisked away.
Along with the durable music and lyrical focus, a big part of Weltschmerz’s success is that here, Fish’s lived-in vocals sound better than they have in years. His 62-year-old voice is less raspy, and doesn’t struggle like it did on previous records. It sounds as if he’s finally figured out how to get the most out of his lowering register and changing range. Plus, it all sounds so good. The production by frequent collaborator and veteran studio engineer Calum Malcolm is clear but warm, and gives the arrangements plenty of room to play, while not forcing Fish’s voice to strain to be heard.
For years, Fish had been talking up Weltschmerz as not only his final musical statement, but his masterwork. He had even chosen the name long before the songs were complete. I took that with a grain of salt. But everything appears to have come together to meet the moment. It’s not just a successful swan song, or a pleasant surprise—it’s one of his best works, and makes for a fitting and fond farewell to and from a unique artist. | Mike Rengel