The Highest in the Land – knowing Pat Fish, probably some kind of an in-joke – is the latest album from the late musician/singer/ songwriter who dubbed himself THE JAZZ BUTCHER. Recorded last year as Fish was in his last few months on dry land (it seems he knew he was, errr, shipping out soon), it’s a fitting endpiece to a discography of some of the greatest recordings to ever be called “alternative,” “new wave,” “college rock” (here in the States) or whatever else the rock scribes of the day came up with. “Dazzling,” “clever,” “catchy” and many other adjectives can be applied to most everything he ever put out, and this one’s definitely all of that.
The Jazz Butcher (as in, “I want to see the man in charge!”) had been recording his hooky, peculiar tunes since his debut LP, Bath of Bacon, and 45, “Southern Mark Smith” were released in 1983. I caught on to him the next year with his absolute classic, A Scandal in Bohemia, an album I still listen to on a regular (as in, “at least once a month”) basis. Over the years and albums Fish/The Butcher’s writing smoothed out; the man matured from writing songs describing birthday presents “made entirely from the skins of dead Jim Morrisons” (“Caroline Wheeler’s Birthday Present”) to (on this release) things like “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar.” The sense of humor is much more refined today. And, actually, so is the sound. In fact, it’s been awhile since The Jazz Butcher used distorted guitar and tons of reverb to tell his tales, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Highest in the Land, like pretty much everything after the mid ’90s, is less in your face and more about space. There’s more breathing room. More space for your brain to fill in.
In reviewing The Jazz Butcher’s previous work, all of which were reissues at the time I was writing about them, I had the time – as in years or decades – to let them steep in my imagination and overall being. With this one, I’ve been listening to an album of all new material on short trips to town, in short spurts here and there at home, and when I have featured it on the radio show I do.* I featured The Highest in the Land’s lead single, “Time,” frequently during the last few months of the year (it had been released as a download just after Fish passed away) as it was not only a superb track but a very, errrr, timely tune with allusions to its author’s impending demise. That he himself wrote “My hair’s all wrong, my time ain’t long / Fishy go to heaven, get along, get along” to start off the track lets us know he was writing with some specific intent – to get a few things off of his chest, maybe, or a few thoughts out of his mind, before he left this mortal coil. The tune’s light hip hop lilt and droll, rappy delivery are perfect for some of Fish’s final (public) thoughts. Other tracks contain more of what our man was thinking in his final months, including “Never Give Up” and “Running on Fumes,” and the sweet, beautiful closer, “Goodnight Sweetheart.”
It’s rare that an artist gets to jot down and record songs about his own final days – what would we do if we knew we were dying? – let alone actually does so. And so, with The Highest in the Land, we are privy to The Jazz Butcher’s last testament. (As far as I know, I am not in his will.) Acting as the final chapter in an acclaimed yet (un)fairly unsung career, this album announces that, if you haven’t yet welcomed The Jazz Butcher into your soul, it’s about time that you did. – Marsh Gooch
4/5 (Tapete TR492, 2022)
* (You can catch my show on Mondays from 3-5pm at KPTZ.org.)