About the Album:
Marillion’s third album, Misplaced Childhood, was an exploration of lost love, the trials of fame, and a drug-induced downfall and subsequent rediscovery of childhood. Clutching at Straws suggested that recovery was brief as it leaps back into themes about “the excesses of classic addiction, whether of alcohol, sex or power.” JC-73 It was “written in bars about the people who drink in them.” JC-73
To that end, the album cover depicted “’The Great Bar in the Sky,’ populated with various artists, writers, and poets” JC-74 with reputations for nipping at the bottle.
Like Childhood, this outing is built around a central character, Torch, who struggles to find answers while drowning his sorrows in alcohol. The album displays lead singer Fish’s “growing sense of frustration with the constant album-tour-album way of life, and the viewpoint frequently appears autobiographical rather than character-led.” JC-73
“Bubbling eddies of keyboards introduce us to Hotel Hobbies and brings the curtain up on Torch, trapped by indecidsion, addiction, and self-loathing, in his hotel room. As he sits at his desk, desperately writing and knowing it’s worthless, the dawn, effortlessly conjured by the band, peeks through the cracks in the curtains, heralding another day.” JC-73
“Warm Wet Circles”
This flows into Warm Wet Circles, the strongest and most interesting song on the album. This intriguing choice as a second single opens with the lines “On promenades where drunks propose to lonely arcade mannequins / Where ceremonies pause at the jeweler’s shop display Feigning casual silence in strained romantic interludes / Till they commit themselves to the muted journey home.” Not exactly your average toe-tapper. As if the lyrics weren’t powerful enough, the song is stuffed with “warm wet circle” imagery, including a wedding ring, the sweat left behind by a glass, and a bullet wound.
Regarding Torch, “the beautiful, emotive” JC-73 finds the character at the local bar. Fish explained that it’s about “the dangers of getting trapped in the 9-to-5 syndrome and then going down to the pub and talking about things you’ll never really do. The local hero’s the best darts player and you marry the girl you met in the pub at 16.” JC-73
“As Torch recalls losing his virginity, Steve Rothery breaks into an aching solo, full of pathos and longing, and the band execute one of the finest wrought moments of their career. Ian Mosley’s snare cracks and we feel the first bullet smashing into John Lennon on the steps of the Dakota building.” JC-73
“That Time of the Night”
On the next song, Torch sits alone at the bar, drkinking, “terrified by the thought he’s perilously close to being one of the hometown guys.” JC-73 “The band creates the perfect sense of tension to underline how close to breaking point Torch really is.” JC-73 Ian Mosley said, “The album reflects genuine camaraderie, yet exposed the decaying tethers that held us together.” JC-73
This song sports “a lyric written on the spur of the moment over a Rothery guitar motif.” JC-73 Torch is “languishing in the depths of his depression, close to giving up and taking the final way out.” JC-73 Keyboardist Mark Kelly said, it was “very much a snapshot of what was going on at the time.” JC-73
“Just for the Record”
“Just as it all gets too dark, Just for the Record’s jaunty keyboard intro brings a note of hope to the album, albeit tinged with a note of self-deception.” JC-73 “The keyboard-led track has Torch cheer himself up with the thought that he could give it all up any time he wanted, the traditional excuse of the addict.” JC-74
“The off-kilter rhythms” JC-74 of “the skull-crushingly dark White Russian” JC-74 “bring to mind wartime dance halls, but as ever on this album, there’s a Kelly-painted black cloud about to come down as Torch observes the rise of Neo-Nazism in Austria. Knowing he should make a stand and say something, Torch fails and runs away geographically and mentally [and] searches for a dealer with something for the pain.” JC-74
Next up is the leadoff single, which with its nauseatingly fast pace is not only the weakest song on the album, but one of the lesser tunes of the entire Marillion catalog. The song “is a necessary mood-lifter…[which] reveals Torch imagining himself as a ‘winner in the fame game.’” JC-74 The band thought it sounded too much like the Who and considered leaving it off the album, but producer Chris Kimsey insisted on keeping the “bouncy, up-tempo number.” JC-74
“Torch Song” and “Slainte Mhath”
These songs “document Torche’s growing realization that he’s killing himself, and the notion he doesn’t care, because it takes him away from the misery of real life. In arguably one of his best lyrics, Fish contrasts the wasted lives of World War I in the trenches with the Scottish shipbuilders seeing their livelihoods destroyed by Thatcherism, and the band pull out all the stops to conjure Torch’s helplessness.” JC-74
The slower tempo Sugar Mice was the best bet for a single with its memorably aching peak into the mind of a man who leaves his family because he can’t beat the bottle. Fish said the song grew out of “a bad phone call home to a very upset girlfriend.” JC-74 The song features “one of the purest guitar solos ever committed to tape” JC-74 by Steve Rothery.
“The Last Straw”
This song “brings us back to Torch in his room…Hard at work, keys clattering against the paper, he muses on what he has seen, creating his masterpiece on the human condition. It’s too late and the damage is done.” JC-74 “The band turn savage…building to a desperate climax as Torch realizes it’s too late to change and his addictions have beaten him.” JC-74 Fish sings, “Those problems seem to arise / The ones you never really thought of / The feeling you get is similar to something like drowning.” He also proclaims, “We’re terminal cases that keep taking medicine / Pretending the end isn’t quite that near.” The lines were eerie foreshadowing to the end of an era; it would be Fish’s last album with the band.
Like Childhood, this album plays very autobiographically. One senses that the success of that album was a blessing and a curse; the added stress of extra touring pushed Fish to alcohol abuse and a sense that maybe there aren’t answers to everything after all.
The 1999 reissue features a second disc of bonus material, including an alternate version of “Incommunicado,” B-side “Tux On,” and previously unreleased versions of “White Russian” and “Sugar Mice.” Of significant fan interest are seven demos, most of which surfaced to some degree on future Marillion and/or Fish solo efforts. “Story from a Thin Wall” served as the lyrical base for Fish’s “Family Business” and musical jumping-off point for Marillion’s “Berlin.” “Shadows on the Barley” evolved into “The Bell in the Sea” while “Sunset Hill” became Fish’s “View from the Hill.” “Tic-Tac-Toe” lent its lyrics to Fish’s “State of Mind” and music to Marillion’s “The Release.” “Voice in the Crowd” evolved lyrically into Fish’s “Vigil” and musically became Marillion’s “After Me.” “Exile on Princes Street” grew into Fish’s “Internal Exile.” Only “Beaujolais Day” appears to have gone no farther than the demo.
In 2022, Fish released a double live album called The Last Straw which featured a full performance of Clutching at Straws.