One of prog’s many attractions is its willingness to tackle unusual or obscure subject matter, and to do so via a lengthy piece of music if the subject is difficult or complex enough to demand it. Not that there’s anything wrong with 3-minute ballads, you understand. But an album consisting solely of short songs about love, lust and relationships can end up sounding a little… well… repetitive.
Marillion’s Ocean Cloud, an 18-minute piece from their acclaimed 2004 album Marbles, is an excellent example of the ‘long song on an unusual subject’ format. The subject in question is a man who is rowing single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean.
A song about rowing? Really?
It’s a testament to Steve Hogarth’s skill as a lyricist that he is able to tease something interesting from such an apparently unpromising starting point. In fact, there are many questions that can be explored here. What is the attraction of such a lonely and dangerous activity? What is the rower trying to prove, and to whom? What is he running away from?
The mournful first line, sung over the sound of waves and seagulls’ cries, immediately sets the tone:
He’s seen too much of life and there’s no going back.
Already, we are being asked to think of this as an escape, an act with a certain finality to it. Hogarth allows this line to stand alone; the first verse doesn’t begin properly until after a few bars of Steve Rothery’s haunting guitar, and it opens with
The loneliness calls him, and the edge which must be sharpened.
Hogarth wants us to recognise the seductive nature of being alone with one’s thoughts; moreover, he highlights the idea that danger can be attractive – the old cliché that you will never feel more alive than when you are putting yourself in harm’s way, ‘sharpening that edge’.
The second verse is, I think, my favourite:
The smell of the earth is his favourite smell
But he’s somehow compelled to the stinging salt hell,
To the place where he hurts and he’s scared,
And there’s no one to tell, and no one who doesn’t listen.
Despite the comforting familiarity of land, the call of the wild ocean is impossible to resist. He will face pain, fear and loneliness – but is being in the middle of that vast expanse of water any more lonely than being with someone “who doesn’t listen”?
Later, the mood changes and the tone becomes defiant:
Only me and the sea
We will do as we please
The defiance soon fades as the song enters its quieter middle section, the calm before the storm. Then the ‘black wall of water’ hits and a flashback reveals what the rower is trying to prove by his mad heroism:
He remembers the day he was marched to the front
By the physical knuckle-head teacher of Games.
“Look lads,” he declared, “this boy’s a cream puff,”
“No guts and no muscles, no spine and no stuffing!”
The whole schoolroom sniggered
And silently thanked God it wasn’t them…
Hogarth spins a positive outcome from this horrible memory, letting us know that the rower is the ultimate victor: that he has proven himself more successful – more of a man, even – than those who once belittled him so cruelly:
But time is revenge, all the bullies grow weak
And must live with faithless women who despise them.
The reminiscence becomes more wistful as the rower reflects on past loves before rejecting these thoughts, declaring
Don’t want to remember when I was alive
And what better way to banish painful memories than to immerse yourself in the physical demands of the challenge?
Watch me, watch me
Paint this picture,
Stretching, cursing, hurting,
Watch me taking it
Before a final chorus ends the song, the last verse captures the seductiveness of ‘perfect solitude’, achievable only by destroying that last means of contact with civilisation:
Between two planets
In the black daylight of space.
Between two heavenly bodies,
The invisible man.
Ripping out the radio; I want to be alone…
You can view a live performance of Ocean Cloud from 2009 here: