The Jazz Butcher
The final album from the mercurial post-punk project offers a wellspring of quotable surrealism, showing the substance and self-definition of the late Pat Fish
While he was making his final album as the Jazz Butcher, Pat Fish knew he was going to die. According to people close to him, he’d managed to outrace cancer, but decades of pint-hoisting good times were catching up with him. He passed away last October at age 64. But one remarkable thing about The Highest in the Land is how little morbidity encumbers it. On the contrary, it positively brims with life. Even when Fish stares down death in the dub-rock countdown “Time,” it’s with the same old gleam in his eye and dodge in his step. “Fishy go to Heaven, get along, get along,” he drawls, rakish and sarcastic, rushing toward “a pit of Council lime.” But most of the other lyrics are acid pronouncements tangled in exuberant wordplay. The verses excoriate lithium mining and privatized jails, but the pre-choruses are stuffed with nearly nonsense lists of shapely words: luminous, leguminous, salubrious, lugubrious. Part giddy fuck-you-I’m-out to an England he’d suffered from Thatcher to Brexit, part psychedelic experience with a rhyming dictionary, “Time” is all Fish. In other words, this cockeyed memento mori is just another great Butch tune on another great Butch record: irascible, inscrutable, delectable, irreducible. Irreducible, yes, but to start somewhere: What if the punk-folk protester Billy Bragg fell under the nihilistic spell of the Velvet Underground instead of the messianic one of the Clash? Fish—who was born on the same day in 1957 as Bragg, also less than 100 miles from London—was the living answer to this hypothetical question and many others. His was a cold-war leftist politics through a glass darkly, a Philip K. Dick allusion he probably would have liked, as someone who paid homage to Thomas Pynchon and Harlan Ellison and was admired by the occult comics guru Alan Moore. Even his most comical, outrageous songs were drawn with fine lines of wealth and class, and his most polemical moments were obscured by non sequiturs of incomparable chewiness. Most of all, he thrived on bloodletting observations of the human dramedy in all its vapid cupidity and ordinary beauty. A native of Northampton, in the East Midlands, Fish either formed or became the Jazz Butcher, depending on how you look at it, while studying philosophy at Oxford. It started as a persona for his precocious, playful adventures in home-recording, and it retained that conceptual flavor as it flourished into a band with a revolving moniker (The Jazz Butcher Conspiracy, The Jazz Butcher and His Sikkorskis from Hell) and lineup, which was rooted by members like guitarist Max Eider but also berthed Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom and the bassist David J, when he was between Bauhaus and Love and Rockets. In the ’80s and early ’90s, the Jazz Butcher’s many albums for the British indies Glass and Creation Records (recommended entry points are Sex and Travel or Big Planet Scarey Planet) displayed a variety that’s bewildering even by UK post-punk standards: twee jangle-pop, Dixieland jazz, arch agit-punk, romantic new wave, country blues, surf-rock, Merseybeat, sophisti-pop, lounge music, Mediterranean wedding songs, on and on. Fish loved soul, Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan, and above all, John Cale—sturdy, classic ’60s things. The surplus he extrapolated from them indicates a true eccentric original. Yet he makes it all whole by sheer force of songcraft, flaunting an innate gift for drizzling charismatic melodies on spare, resourceful arrangements in any style. The Jazz Butcher’s recordings thinned away after 1995, and were mostly out of print and forgotten until Fire Records began a series of reissues about seven years ago. It was around then that Fish, Eider, and other trusted bandmates began working on The Highest in the Land, where they sound startlingly fresh after a decade away. Though done up in the usual power-clashing genres, the songs are mainly either ballads that spill into rants (“Never Give Up,” with very different production and the end lopped off, could pass for a minor Coldplay hit) or vice versa. They call to mind a pleasure dome of fetching, unrelated references: the demotic prowess of Jens Lekman, the melodic immediacy of the Lucksmiths, the wry dandyism of XTC, the dialectical swoon of Stars, and of course, the curdled cool of Cale. Whether the style is antic, enervated country-and-western (“Running on Fumes”) or dreamy electric soul (“Goodnight Sweetheart”), the music is kept clean and spacious so Fish can fit all his wonderful words inside. He is a wellspring of quotable surrealism. Taste an impenetrable couplet like “The black-crested ape of Boo Yang Shang, sing like a theremin, walk like a man.” Feel the cryptic gut-punch of a question like “Tiny cans of Coke for free—is that what you chose over me?” Another song begins, “I got this fish from Genghis Khan,” which has to rival “Fat Charlie the Archangel sloped into the room” in the pantheon of perfectly weird opening lines. Fish never had qualms about referencing people we couldn’t possibly be expected to know about, and he preserved this intimate, local aesthetic to the end. It starts immediately with “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar,” a slinky jazz-cat number in which a tale of young love divided by wealth ends in merry anti-capitalist flames. An additional layer of mystery exists for the non-British listener, who easily infers that Formby must be posh and an East Midlands accent must not be, but who might need to look up things like gammons and Children of the Stones. But no amount of googling can pierce “The Highest in the Land,” a portentous desert blues about Genghis Khan and apes and whatever Boo Yang Shang is, although apparently the “Black Raoul” who Fish chants about is known to hardcore fans as his cat. The song is vividly personal to a riddling degree, and it seems significant that it, rather than one of the more outspoken tracks, provided the album’s title. As densely English as Fish’s music is, he had an anti-isolationist vision of the country, with a sensibility that spanned Europe and profound musical influence from North America. “Sea Madness,” a pastoral folk tune with warm, tired horns, is a tribute to a legendary figure on the local Northampton music scene, an immigrant from Istanbul called Turkish George. “Sebastian’s Medication” seems to have Brexiters in its sights when Fish dresses down the gammons “pining for some ill-defined imaginary nation, antecedents they would struggle to name.” As soon as this clear statement comes into view, Fish dances away from it, invoking the right’s favorite shibboleth of “political correctness gone mad.” He liked to keep himself just out of frame, unpinned to any didactic point of view. Inasmuch as The Highest in the Land is a winning globalist view from the provinces, it is not concerned with progressive lip service. “Any moment now, somebody’s going to say ‘toxic,’ that’s assured,” Fish sings on “Running on Fumes.” “Yes, ’cause people love to talk that way, but people only ever made me bored.” His misanthropy is comprehensive, unmalicious, and countered by empathy and sentimentality. “I never really identified with the ‘social commentator’ thing, any more than I did with the asinine ‘Monty Python of rock’ label with which some deaf people tried to saddle us back in the ’80,” he said in a 2020 interview. But The Highest in the Land, a just and honest headstone, captures the substance and self-definition of a singular songwriter where words and labels fail. 7.5
The Highest in the Land
It's not often that an artist gets to do a Bowie by consciously carving their personal epitaph into the grooves of their final LP. The Highest in the Land is that rarity of an album, and it could not have been made by a more brilliantly poetic and fearlessly sarcastic writer than Pat Fish, also known as The Jazz Butcher.
( www.tapeterecords.de )
( www.tapeterecords.de )
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