Fish’s debut solo album, Vigil in the Wilderness of Mirrors, had sounded almost exactly like what you’d expect the debut solo album of the former Marillion frontman to sound like. His second album, 1991’s Internal Exile, was a tweak in sonic pallette thanks to the addition of producer Chris Kimsey (who has recently has loaned his decades of experience to Yorkshire’s own Bang Bang Romeo), and a shuffling of his backing band. Lyrically it found Fish continue to hone his craft with increasingly mature and personal material, as he collaborated with his co-writers, guitarists Frank Usher and Robin Boult, and keyboard player Mickey Simmonds.
Fish had always been a fine prog-rock vocalist, obviously influenced by the likes of Peters Hammill and Gabriel. By the time of Internal Exile he’d got the majority of the pretentious lyrics out of his system and he’d started to concentrate on writing more direct (but no less wordy) songs about relationships. There was still a place for the odd guitar solo and a whole bag of musical tricks performed by a band of solid prog-rock session musos.
One of the points that Fish does lapse back into the over-egged lyrics of his early Marillion days is the opening track, “Shadowplay”. Even then it’s deftly performed, from it’s slow burn intro, to the full-bananas prog vocals and the overall ensemble playing of the band. Listening to it now, it’s an audio olive-branch to the fans that still hadn’t forgiven him for abandoning Marillion. The amount of effort which went in to this on song is obvious, so it’s no small wonder that it’s the best song here. On the flip-side, the other moment he slides back into pretentious prog lyrics is the albums weakest track, “Lucky”, it’s awful.
While there is perhaps a certain justification in levelling the accusation of wordy pretentiousness in Fish’s direction, you cannot question his ability to write a compelling lyric which strikes emotional chords from the most optimal angles. This is Fish’s great skill. While so much progressive rock focused too much on the music, to the point where decent lyrics were secondary to flashy musical dexterity, Fish approached it from the opposite direction, writing dense and complex lyrics which you could relate to if you were willing to sit down with the lyric sheet and immerse yourself in his albums. In this sense, Internal Exile is a product of an earlier time, where an album was absorbed by the listener in their home by giving it 100% of their attention. At this time of portable digital music players, downloads and streaming that just doesn’t happen much anymore, as we consume music in a very different way, leaving an album like Internal Exile as something of a curio from an earlier age. To get the most out of an album like Internal Exile, you have to invest time in it, it’s not something you can approach half-heartedly.
Once you allow Internal Exile the time it deserves, you realise it’s a particularly strong album as Fish explores his celtic roots, deals with a few personal issues and makes known his opinions on a variety of global issues, without alienating his audience. Everything Fish sings about on this album is relatable and genuine, as opposed to the mystical guff that progressive rock had a nasty habit of relying too heavily upon. Sure, songs like the title track, “Lucky” and “Favourite Stranger” all possess lyrics that demand a little more investment of time to digest the lyrics than your average radio hit, but sometimes you have to put something in yourself to get the most out of it.
With it’s strong lyrics, sense of musical collaboration and deeper exploration of what made Fish tick, Internal Exile is perhaps his definitive solo album. Its lack of success was perhaps not so much down to its lack of quality (something it has in spades), but more down to when it was released. In 1991 here the UK we were knee-deep in baggy, while the smell of teen spirit was wafting towards us from across the Atlantic. What chance did a solo album by someone like Fish have to be commercial success?
Perhaps almost a quarter of a century later, it’s time we took time out to embrace album culture and gave overlooked releases like Internal Exile a chance, before we all forget what it’s like to invest time in doing nothing more than just listening to music.