Review Summary: Fish reflects on his most recently failed relationship, but only manages to produce yet another consistent album full of creativity and excellent instrumentation.
Fish's ninth and latest studio album entitled “13th Star”, is in no way as unlucky as the album title would suggest. Sure, it's been described by long-time fans as “a departure from his better work”, but this just begs the question: How can one work out which of his albums are better? A question like this cannot simply be answered if one hasn't heard all of Fish's solo albums, and this is because of the fact that each and every one sounds completely and utterly different. With “13th Star”, the themes and overall concept are quite obvious judging by the lyrical content, but as with other Fish albums, there is more to it than meets the eye.
According to the man himself, Fish's ninth studio album is largely based on the failed relationship between him and Mostly Autumn singer Heather Findlay, who apparently were supposed to get married, yet this marriage was cancelled when Findlay left Fish in 2007. The title of the album itself refers to the thirteenth “female significant other” in Fish's life, so even with the album's title, we get a sense that Fish hasn't let up on his abilities as a true poet and an astoundingly good songwriter. Fact is, many solo artists who tend to write albums solely based on failed relationships often fall flat on their face as a result of relying on too much melancholy or truly depressing lyrical content, yet thankfully Fish dodges this obstacle by using the one thing that has always reigned supreme in his solo career: Lyrics and songwriting.
You've probably heard it all before if you've read any of my previous Fish reviews, but it really does help to have a consistently creative mindset towards writing lyrics. Strangely however, this time Fish has decided to eschew some of his more poetical lyricism in favor of more obvious, clearer lyrics that you don't need to scratch your head for hours on end to decipher just what they are going on about. Even if these lyrics are simpler to understand however, it is really the other things that help to truly bring these lyrics out and create various moods and emotions. This point is more than evident when Fish begins to croon on the Electronica-heavy 'Circle Line', which features him admitting he's “Just another face in the crowd, taking my place without a sound/I follow strangers blindly through toward the so familiar doors”. One can plainly see when reading these lyrics that the album is going to be a much more personal one than in the past. However, at times there are indeed more poetically written lyrics, even at times reminding the listener of Fish's earlier days with Marillion. On the lush 'Miles de Besos' he soothingly observes his beautiful imagination as “Rain comes/delivered in the city,wash the feet of the angels at play/Waters graced with garlands of roses/In the Conchya Torro the fountains cry”, suggesting a more beautiful, more impressive image than on other songs. Even on the album's deepest and longest song, 'Dark Star', there is a mixture of these two lyrical styles, as Fish harmonizes his voice, almost sounding like an angel himself, when he sings that “The fairy falls with broken wings;I hold it close to me then let it fly/Another dream, another you/Shattered splintered shards explode in the blue”.
The songwriting has evidently changed a lot, but since this is one of the things that constantly occurs on each and every Fish album, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who has heard his work before. There are generally two musical styles that dominate “13th Star”. One is of a heavier, more aggressive approach that largely embraces the Industrial and Electronica genres, in which opener 'Circle Line', 'Square Go' and 'Openwater' all manage to be as consistent as possible, at times moving into a more ambient sound that fortunately gives the listener a break from all the heaviness that the guitar work and bass rhythms create. The other is basically the exact opposite, but not at all mediocre in comparison. Mellower, more soothing and relaxing atmospheres collaborate with Fish's soulful vocal style and a nice combination of keyboards, pianos and organs that offer a lot of diversity on songs as beautifully written as 'Zoe 25' (The name of the place where Fish proposed to Heather Findlay), 'Arc of the Curve' and the nicely placed title track.
These song structures are all very well placed by Fish, but its really the instruments themselves that help to complete each and every song fully. Although there doesn't seem to be as many guest musicians as on previous albums such as “Raingods with Zippos”, there are still a few instruments that help to create different sounds. Arguably the most prominent instruments here are the electronic keyboards and the guitars (both acoustic and electric), as they are featured on every single song. At times, as on 'Arc of the Curve' and 'Where in the World', Chris Johnson's performance is very reminiscent of Pink Floyd's “Meddle” album, whereas the heavier 'Circle Line' and 'Manchmal' seem to have more in common with U2's 21st century material than it does with anything else. The only backing vocals, courtesy of Lorna Bannon, do indeed add extra effects to Fish's vocal style, as her voice flows through each song that they are featured on in a very luscious way.
Whilst the instruments do indeed have their many advantages, there are a few minor flaws to be found that could easily (and HAVE easily) put fans of Fish's previous work off, the Electronica and Industrial influences sometimes appearing to overshadow such well executed instruments as the clarinet, accordion and even the dulcimer on the closing title track. The guitar work, when played heavy, also seems to take away from the overall atmosphere and even the beauty of Fish's lyrics, as its heaviness appears to provide far too much aggression than is actually needed.
However, these are but two disadvantages in an album that is full of creative musicianship and well written songs, and yet again, you will most probably be asking yourself “How much better can this guy get?” before replaying “13th Star” in its entirety. Try not to expect the same atmospheres or sounds created on “Internal Exile” or “Raingods with Zippos”, because if you do, then disappointment may perhaps come your way.