Monday, 3 January 2011

"Listen as the Syllables of Slaughter Cut with Calm Precision"

So, a new year is upon us, and I thought it somewhat appropriate to focus a little bit upon on music, seeing as how it is a somewhat under-represented category given this blog's subtitle.

And, as it happens, during the last few days I have been revisiting an old favourite of mine, which still holds up with razor sharp excellence. Dear readers, I give you Marillion's 1984 album Fugazi.

The album consists of seven tracks, "Assassing" (7.02), "Punch and Judy" (3.21), "Jigsaw" (6.50), "Emerald Lies" (5.09), "She Chameleon" (6.53), "Incubus" (8.30) and "Fugazi" (8.13); the B side of the vinyl starting with "She Chameleon". In the strictest sense, it is not a concept album. There is no plot running through the album, tying the songs together and shaping a unified narrative, but that having been said, I would strongly argue that it is a conceptual album. Because the songs are cleverly tied together thematically. Fugazi, as an album, is all about human relationships, and more specifically ones that "Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In" (the acronym stemming back to the Vietnam war).

The brilliance of the album comes, to a large extent, from Fish's lyrical genius. As a huge Fish fan, I would say that this album in many ways constitutes one of the man's finest hours. Each song deals with the aforementioned theme, but each song does so by placing the theme in a certain semantic field. The reference is always to the human relationships going down the drain, but the fantastic metaphors used create seven very different tableaux.

In "Assassing", Fish opens up by creating a mixed metaphor of a battle and linguistics, appropriately expressed in a phenomenal piece de resistance of word play extraordinary. As the title of this post ought to demonstrate quite adequately.

The short, but very intensive, second track, "Punch and Judy" makes use of the commedia dell'arte character Puncinella, or more commonly in English, Punchinello or Mr Punch; or even more precisely it uses the old puppet show classic about a relationship taken to murderous levels (Mr Punch killing both his baby and wife before moving on to other pastures – for people interested in the story, I would strongly recommend Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's interpretation in The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch) to express the theme in a more modern, urbanised, and bourgeois setting.

"Jigsaw" is built up on several metaphors, from the notion of jigsaw pieces fitting together (or not, as it were) in the first verse, through the hopelessness in "Screaming out a ceasefire, snowblind in an avalanche zone" in the second one, to the utter despair of playing "Russian roulette in the waiting room / Empty chambers embracing the end" in the final verse. All of these, however, are nicely fitted together as functioning puzzle, almost working as a mise-en-abyme of the album as a whole (i.e. I would argue that it expresses the artistic and stylistic principle behind the lyrics on the whole album, neatly compressed in a single song).

Closing the original A-side of the album, "Emerald Lies" combines a medieval reference involving the Inquisition with a modern day courtroom drama. The colour green is obviously the colour of jealousy and this in turn suits the semantic fields of choice when it comes to the metaphors, since the invasive nature both of the Inquisition and a prosecution eloquently expresses this feeling that can almost literally tear a relationship apart.

Opening the original B-side, "She Chameleon" uses the metaphorical value of a chameleon as type of shape-shifter or deceiver to express physical encounters that somehow never amount to any true meaning, yet which the poetic I nevertheless do not refuse or abandon. Incidentally, I would dare anyone to find a better, more poetically apt use of the word fuck (repeated at that) than in this song.

One of my favourite tracks has always been "Incubus", with its use of photography-, cinema- and stage-related metaphors to describe the lingering remnants of the torn-apart relationships around which the album centres. The power in a phrase like "You who wiped me from your memory like a greasepaint mask / Just like a greasepaint mask" never ceases to amaze me, and never fails to affect me emotionally.

The title track, "Fugazi", brings the theme to a strong close. In some sense, it opens up the notion of failing relationships to a larger stage. It starts with the somewhat intimate lines – "Vodka intimate, an affair with isolation in a Blackheath cell / Extinguishing the fires in my private hell / provoking the heartache to renew the license / Of a bleeding heart poet in a fragile capsule" – but then moves this loss of faith in the Romantic beyond its simpler application on twosome relationships to human relationships on a larger scale, referencing the Holocaust, race riots and the ever-present (at the time) threat of nuclear annihilation.

After establishing that "This world is totally fugazi," the song, and the album, closes with the repeated lines "Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries / Where are the poets, to breach the dawn of the sentimental mercenary," which suggests a desire on the part of the lyricist to plead for a way out of the madness, or perhaps more accurately a way of seeing outside the box, when it comes to human relationships.

Ah well, do not take my word for it. Listen to the album yourselves. And be sure to give those lyrics some extra attention.

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