erasing clouds

Remembering: Terrence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh

reviewed by dave heaton

Terrence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh is one of those albums that, for a while after its 1989 release, critics were constantly referring to as "underrated" as a "unrecognized classic" and so forth, and they were right. I listened to it recently for the first time in years, and it's as strong and rewarding an album as ever.

The album might start out with an indication of Darby's pretensions to "art", silence followed by his overlapping voice in a world of echo, declaring "I will not be defined 'cause I'm neither fish nor flesh." But that stormcloud soon clears, Darby's voice climbing into the air to clear it. The words he sings are as relevant now as ever: "I have faith in these desolate times," he starts, and then soon, "I have faith, but for how much longer?"

His singing voice on that spare song, and the album overall, has a clear, pure quality that, even when it gives way to a purposeful display of prowess, is chilling enough to stop time. That's true whether the song is austere ('classical') in tone, as that one is until it breaks into a James Brown strut at the end, or loose and light ('pop'), like on "To Know Someone Deeply Is to Know Someone Softly." His lyrics may aspire to poetry - sometimes succeeding and sometimes not (that's in the ear of the beholder, I suppose), but they also have an emotional directness to them. They're vulnerable love songs for the most part - sometimes slightly narcissistic, often melancholy but also sweet and caring, and above all romantic.

That sense of tenderness, is no doubt heightened by the arrangements, vocal and instrumental. The omnipresent strings are only one element that provides a continual feeling of lightness - there's jazz guitar, snappy horns, tropical guitar and percussion, woodwinds, tambourine, and more. The music melds together many styles of soul music - Prince-like slinkiness, Sam Cooke-style gospel-soul, some Stevie Wonder, and even a bit of Hendrix - while always displaying D'Arby's own unique personality, which is theatrical and big, but at the same time aims quite directly at the heart, often in an intimate, warm way. And it ends on a completely open note of desire, delivered starkly but also in an appropriately indiosyncratic way - "all I know is I'm lonely / and I need to be with someone tonight."

After this album D'Arby made another potential classic (Symphony or Damn), and some other scattered moments of brillance, but also stumbled around, trying to position himself as some kind of alt-rock god. He's now more or less disappeared, at least from the overall public radar, meaning Neither Fish Nor Flesh is still destined to be considered one of those critics' albums, that writers like to write about even if people are no longer listening to it. With this one, though, there's nothing 'difficult' about the actual music, nothing that would keep your average music lover from finding great pleasure in it.

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