Album Review- Marillion, “Misplaced Childhood”

Marillion's 1985 record, Misplaced Childhood.

“Two hundred Francs for sanctuary and she led me by the hand to a room of dancing shadows where all the heartache disappears, and from glowing tongues of candles I heard her whisper in my ear: J’entend ton coeur. I can hear your heart….” -Bitter Suite (III. Blue Angel)

41 minutes is all I need for sanctuary as Marillion takes me by the hand, leading me into a world of dancing melodies where all my heartache disappears. From the glowing lyrics, frontman Fish seems to hear my heart indeed. I’m going to warn my readers now, I’m extremely biased about this album. I don’t know if I can fairly grade it, considering this is far and away my favorite album of all time. This piece of music means a lot to me. Forgive me, but realize.. this IS a great album, a must-listen for anyone, especially those with emotional investments in the records they enjoy.

Marillion is one of those bands that have two distinct eras due to changes in frontmen, like Genesis or Van Halen or AC/DC. The first four albums the band released, all in the 1980s, were under the lead of a charismatic Scottish poet by the nickname of Fish (Born Derek Dick). The band and Fish parted ways in 1988 and changed style significantly while picking up Steve Hogarth as their new frontman. While I enjoy Hogarth-era Marillion, I have much more emotional connection to the work Fish produced with the band, especially the album I’m preparing to discuss.

I discovered Marillion a few years ago when I realized that I had an obsession with “Progressive” rock. The term is loosely applied to any band with concept albums, superb technical ability, longer compositions, ambitious lyrical content, and influences outside of traditional rock roots. I acquired some Marillion, eager to absorb the keyboard solos, psychedelic vibes, out-of-this-world grooves and trippy rhythms that other prog bands were known for. Marillion displays all of these traits and then some, HOWEVER; it wasn’t their “progressiveness” that hooked me. The band seemed to have a more gentle, realistic, and authentic touch to their music and lyrics than many other prog bands did. Much of this can be traced to Fish, a well-travelled and cultured poet with a bold way of speaking and wearing his heart on his sleeve. Fish is one of the best emoters in rock history, I dare to say, up there with greats like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Chris Cornell, Steve Perry, Robert Plant, and Bono. Every word, melody, note, and afflection Fish sings has a meaning; no word is without a purpose, no lyric is superficial.

I don’t think this is an album that casual listeners can truly grasp after one listen; nor do I think it’s an album that can be played in the background. It’s a wholesome, full work that is best enjoyed in isolation, without distraction. There’s so much going on in Misplaced Childhood, so many layers of meaning and music, that it takes time to “get.” It took me time.

Now, on to the review….

Fish

“Pseudo Silk Komono” seeps into the listener’s ears, a haunting, creepy organ melody lurking in the shadows of conscience. When Fish sings the lyrics, I can imagine a tired, weary, sage old man speaking these words as he reflects, struggling with some past sin or memory that he wishes to forget. This sets up the album on a somber, heavy note. “The spirit of a misplaced childhood is rising to speak his mind to this orphan of heartbreak, disillusioned and scarred; A refugee.” Fear and regret soak Fish’s words. I am able to feel the sorrow and remorse. Even if I haven’t faced the same horrors the narrator has, I can relate due to the emotion that drips from these poetic lyrics.

Marillion’s guitarist, Steve Rothery, is well-regarded for his melodic and atmospheric, clean playing style. This style is best exemplified in the intro of the second song, “Kayleigh.” His ringing riff is accented by clever piano and bass harmonies, while Ian Mosley’s drumming is snappy and tasteful. Fish pours out his heart to an old lover, begging her to come back, sharing very personal memories in a catchy and melodic tune. Yes, this is a rather “poppy” song, and was a huge hit in the United Kingdom, but the music and vocals are quite authentic. The heavy, haunting build-up in “Kimono” contrasts the jangling melodies that came here, but it works to be very effective as Fish begins to recall happenings past.  Rothery’s guitar solo captures the essence of yearning and separation, complimenting the hearty Fish vocal. Having undergone a recent split, and having had to comfort myself with this album as I had done many a time before, something about this song struck me to the core.  “Kayleigh I’m still trying to write that love song, Kayleigh it’s more important to me now you’re gone. Maybe it will prove that we were right, or ever prove that I was wrong.”

“Lavender” begins on one of the sweetest, simple, pure piano lines that I’ve ever heard. Fish’s voice drips of longing and remembrance as he recalls the innocence of childhood. The lyrics in this song are a bit more straightforward than in the other two, as this is done on purpose to tie into a popular nursery rhyme and perfectly capture the mood of youth. While Fish begs for his love to return to him in “Kayleigh,” in “Lavender” he acknowledges that he owes her for her love in a powerful chorus that gives way to another delightful Rothery solo.

In “Bitter Suite,” the mood reverts back to what is felt in the beginning of the album. Thundering, chaotic drums and dark, desolate bass chords resonate as the guitar picks and prods at inner demons deep within the listener, summoning forth mistakes and regrets that cling to this very day. The first part of the song is definitely a “mood” piece. Fish recites the lyrics in the beginning of the song, rather than sings them. The poem he reads is very pessimistic and dark in nature. Fish launches into his singing once more with a gusto, recalling lost souls who struggle with their pasts. “She was a wallflower at sixteen, she’ll be a wallflower at thirty four. Her mother called her beautiful, her daddy said, “A whore”.”

From here the music begins to build a bit, Rothery taking over for Fish, the guitar’s passionate lines just as useful as any lyric or word could ever be. The song shifts a bit, recalling the same mood as “Lavender” and “Kayleigh,” as Fish ponders another lost lover. My favorite lyrics in the entire album are sung in a heart-wrenching fashion: Two hundred Francs for sanctuary and she led me by the hand to a room of dancing shadows where all the heartache disappears, and from glowing tongues of candles I heard her whisper in my ear: J’entend ton coeur. I can hear your heart…”

The heart is certainly a recurring theme in Misplaced Childhood. One can tell that Fish and company put their hearts and souls into this work. It’s a deep, moving piece so far that has touched a wide variety of emotions, and the album isn’t even halfway over at this point. Fish, overwhelmed by the pressures and personal tragedies he’s faced, finds himself lost and directionless. “ On the outskirts of nowhere, on the ring road to somewhere, on the verge of indecision, I’ll always take the roundabout way.”

“Heart of Lothian” is a rip-roaring, spectacular, powerful anthem. Pete Trewavas plays a rumbling, active bassline as Rothery grinds out a flying, nonstop guitar line that brings to mind banners, parades, color, and smiles. There’s more satisfaction and bravado in Fish’s voice as he spectacularly describes “rooting, tooting cowboys” and “lucky little ladies at the watering hole.” Whatever darkness that plagued the narrater is forgotten, or at least covered up, by this swaggering fist-pumping sing-along. Has Fish moved on from his troubles? Has he made some kind of revelation about his life? Has he discovered that misplaced meaning once again?

It doesn’t appear to be so, as in the latter half of the song Fish’s voice suddenly turns to lament and confusion, the music melting around his mournful vocal as he proclaims, “The man in the mirror has sad eyes.”

“Waterhole (Expresso Bongo),” is a rhythmic whirlwind, as the keyboards and drums prance around in circles around an arrogant and bitter-sounding Fish asserting that “the heroes never show.” This is a quick song, but its punch is well-felt as it immediately gives way to “Lords of the Backstage,” which functions as a companion tune. The victorious tone of “Lothian” returns, with the snappy rhythm accenting Fish’s confession that he “just wanted you to be the first one. Ashes are burning, burning. A lifestyle with no simplicities, but I’m not asking for your sympathy. Talk, we never could talk, distanced by all that was between us. A lord of the backstage, a creature of language, I’m so far out and I’m too far in.”

Last night you said I was cold, untouchable. A lonely piece of action from another town. I just want to be free, I’m happy to be lonely. Can’t you stay away? Just leave me alone with my thoughts. Just a runaway, I’m saving myself.” In “Blind Curve,” Fish suddenly becomes closed-off and isolated. His voice drips of the kind of self-depricating hate that only the most upset and lost people can feel. Nearly anyone can empathize with the brutal heartbreak he expresses, as the soul-searching narrator goes on a directionless journey, “still trying to write love songs for passing strangers.” Many due props are given to keyboardist Mark Kelly, whose lines throughout the album have been extremely tasteful and have added so much to the moods. Here his synthesizers waver and weep as Fish succumbs to yet another wave of tragedies; losing a friend, facing his own mortality, and descending into substance abuse. Fish “never felt so alone” as he travels to yet “another temporary home.” Fish asks if he’d gone insane, and the music reflects this depression, slow and sporadic, haunting and meloncholy.

The addictions and depression get the best of the narrator. Fish laments, “I’ve never been so wasted. I’ve never been this far out before.” Another moody spoken word passage follows as he detects a presence, the drums and synth working together to generate a very dark atmosphere. He cries out to anyone who will listen to give his childhood back to him. Fish challenges industry, religion, and politics, saying he can’t take anymore, calling out the world for the evil that it produces. “How can we justify,” he asks, “they call us civilized!” The atmosphere of the album climbs back out of the darkness, as it seems Fish is on the verge of an epiphany. He finds meaning in his quest for innocence and justice. The guitar lines revisit “Heart of Lothian,” if not a bit more melancholy and purposeful this time around.

I’ll never forget the time I first truly got “hit” by “Childhood’s End?” This song, simply put, is my life story, musically and lyrically. It’s a revelation, happy and forward-thinking, a butterfly breaking out its coccoon, the dawn after the night, the light after the rain. Fish has found the meaning of his life, and has discovered that he’s still the same child he was in the past. “The only thing misplaced was direction, and I found direction. There is no childhood’s end!!” The music is victorious, Fish sounds genuinely happy, and the synth solo in the end of the song is one of the most powerful passages in music I’ve ever listened to. I can’t sum up how much this song means to me, especially the bolded/italicized part below…

And it was morning
And I found myself mourning,
For a childhood that I thought had disappeared
I looked out the window
And I saw a magpie in the rainbow, the rain had gone
I’m not alone, I turned to the mirror
I saw you, the child, that once loved

The child before they broke his heart
Our heart, the heart that I believed was lost

Hey you, surprised? More than surprised
To find the answers to the questions
Were always in your own eyes

Do you realize that you could’ve back to her?
But that would only be retraced in all the problems that you ever knew
So untrue
For she’s got to carry on with her life
And you’ve got to carry on with yours

So I see it’s me, I can do anything
And I’m still the child
‘Cos the only thing misplaced was direction
And I found direction
There is no childhood’s end
You are my childhood friend, lead me on

Hey you, you’ve survived. Now you’ve arrived
To be reborn in the shadow of the magpie

Now you realise, that you’ve got to get out of here
You’ve found the leading light of destiny, burning in the ashes of your memory
You want to change the world
You’d resigned yourself to die a broken rebel
But that was looking backward
Now you’ve found the light

You, the child that once loved
The child before they broke his heart
Our heart, the heart that I believed was lost

So it’s me I see, I can do anything.
I’m still the child
‘Cos the only thing misplaced was direction
And I found direction
There is no childhood’s end
I am your childhood friend, lead me on

The album ends on “White Feather,” a marching and boistrous number where Fish asserts possession of his own heart and soul, that he belongs to no nation, but he is the owner of himself and a free spirit with free will. It’s not the most powerful song on the album, by far, but it is a happy conclusion to this journey of negative and reflective moods.

I can’t use words to describe what Misplaced Childhood means to me. It’s one of the albums with a nonstop “shiver factor” and depth unparalleled. It’s the kind of music that you hear, and you think to yourself, “Where have I heard this before? Why is this so familiar?” It’s familiar because Marillion has harnessed the fabric of the human spirit, of love and loss and everything in between, and channelled it into one of the greatest albums of all time.

I long to speak with more people that have been touched as deeply as I by this album, who have listened to it literally dozens of times and love it just as much as I. If you take my advice and listen to it, or already have, whether you like it or not… I’d love to read your thoughts in the comment section..

Point-blank, I recommend this album to every person who listens to music with emotional investments, who look for something “more” out of their listening.

Anybody who is a casual fan of progressive rock such as Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, and Camel can find a good bit to enjoy in Misplaced Childhood as well, so even if you’re not an emotional listener, the record’s still good for a couple spins.

Timeless classic, an epic of love and loss and rediscovery…

Final Grade: A+

BUY THIS ALBUM HERE!!

Marillion: An Underrated Band

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6 Responses to “Album Review- Marillion, “Misplaced Childhood””

  1. H.T. Riekels Says:

    One of my all time favorites as well. It has lifted me up more times than I can count. I actually saw them perform the whole thing live in Grand Rapids, MI when they were touring in 1986.

  2. tylerwoodbridge Says:

    How incredibly lucky you are. Marillion as well as Fish solo are both in my top ten of artists I haven’t seen live, that I’d love to. I had a chance to see Fish in Cleveland recently but was unable to make it due to an irritatingly inflexible job at the time and a shortage of expendable money. Hopefully one day seeing these artists could be made a possibility.

  3. Todd Says:

    Good review. Afew decades late and funny to find this now, so soon after you wrote the review. I have not listened to this album in many years. I had the fortune to purchase this album in 1985/86 when it first came out and also meet the band at a local music store for a meet and greet. I have my own signed copy of Kayleigh. (it was 8 am on a saturday and the band was already drinking heavily, rock-stars!) They also came to this area in 1987 (i think) on the misplaced childhood tour. It was the most emotional show i have ever seen. The show was amazing, no fancy dancy lazer, just really really good entertainment and music. It remains one of the best shows I have ever seen live, and in the 11 row. Thanks for the post & the great coverage, very well put together. T

  4. Brett Dyer Says:

    If only I had a greenback for every time I came to tylerwoodbridge.wordpress.com… Great writing.

  5. Susanne Vestergaard Says:

    Thumbs up for the album review. Marillion with Fish is my all-time favorite too, since i heard them for the first time in 1983. I can listen to the albums over and over, and they just seem to be deeper and more nuanced everytime, especially Fishs lyrics . The music is a perfect extension of Fish’s excellent emotional poetries.

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