It’s rare anymore that I listen to an album all the way through, especially a new one. At most I might sit through it once before throwing it into a playlist of recent stuff, which I’ll then listen to on shuffle as a concession to my short and ever-shrinking attention span.
But I have listened to The Highest in the Land — the posthumous final release by the Jazz Butcher — almost every day since it came out earlier this month. I don’t think I’m just being sentimental; I think it’s really that good. So I thought I’d pay tribute to its creator, the late Patrick Guy Sibley Huntrods, a.k.a. Pat Fish, by going through it in two entries, roughly corresponding to what would be two sides of an LP.
1. Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar
In the leadup to this album’s release I was excited but also worried. The two singles were jaunty numbers with bleak, cutting lyrics — the ruminations of a man who’s reached the end of his life without feeling like he has much to show for it. Money, or the lack thereof, was a recurring theme; “time’s running out, the money’s running out,” said one; “nothing in the bank/nothing in the tank,” went another.
I wondered if the album as a whole would be equally dark, and maybe not as catchy. And hey, a man facing the abyss has a right to his feelings. The obvious point of reference is Blackstar, a work I admire but don’t find myself listening to very often.
But my concerns were allayed within the first 30 seconds of the first song. “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar” is warm and jazzy, nostalgic and funny, beautiful and bitterweet. It’s pretty close to a perfect song.
One detail that escaped my attention the first time around: It’s not an actual Jag. Says Mr. Fish:
It wasn’t a real one
Lord, that would be mad
If you lived in a place like Formby
Like Melanie Hargreaves’ dad.
Formby is a coastal town in the west of England, not too far from Liverpool. I’m not 100% sure why it would be mad to have a Jaguar there. Possibly the reference is to crime; this seems likely considering the fate of the vehicle in question. But nowadays it is quite an affluent area; maybe things were different then? Maybe it’s a reference to the harsh effects a coastal climate can have on a car? This is not really relevant to the main thrust of the song, I know; still I am curious.
Perversely but characteristically, the Butcher chose the end of his career to make some of his most accessible music. After hearing “Time” you’ll find yourself walking around humming “My hair’s all wrong/My time ain’t long/Fishy go to heaven, get along, get along” with a big smile on your face, not caring about the context — which is a man singing about his own imminent demise. And that’s a clever trick innit, turning your prophecies of doom into deep-tunneling earworms? Well done, I say.
3. Sea Madness
A recent review on Pitchfork helpfully glosses this as “a tribute to a legendary figure on the local Northampton music scene, an immigrant from Istanbul called Turkish George.” Otherwise it is hard to parse. A lovely tune, though.
It takes a lot of years of experience to make it seem that easy, to have lyrics like these just flow off your tongue:
Down the Champs-Élysées, St. Germain, and St. Michel
To Albion’s perfidious uncaring wedding bells
Such a waste that he shall write songs no more. But such is life.
4. Never Give Up
This is the emotional center of the album, as heartrending a lovesick lament as you’re ever likely to hear. If you can listen to it without a little hint of salty discharge, you’re stronger than I. Of course, this being the Butcher, it has to end with a little bit of barbed humor.
The line “I agree with Dave/embrace your dysfunction” is a reference to his erstwhile bandmate and longtime friend David J., who released a song and album called “Embrace Your Dysfunction” in 2004. Am I proud of myself for knowing that? No comment.
5. Amalfi Coast May 1963
You kind of need a break after “Never Give Up,” and this provides one, evoking (I’m guessing) a childhood memory of the Mediterranean seaside.
OK, now get some rest. There will be more tomorrow.