Where to start, where to start? I guess I'll use the word 'epic' because it will so inevitably come up at some point. "This Strange Engine", the eighth and final track on the album of the same name runs to thirty minutes and twenty four seconds. Now, half of that can be discounted, because it is silence leading up to the utterly pointless "secret track" that has been the fashionable way to end albums ever since CDs came to the fore. Ah how I will never understand the ways of fashion. Anyway, this nonetheless leaves us with a song that is over a quarter of an hour long. That's quite a lot. It makes it the third longest Marillion song, in fact. Well, by any reasonable measure.
That's not necessarily a particularly relevant fact, because it's not a competition; I don't get any sense from any of the real Marillion epics that their length is artificaially extended to break their own records, the song is exactly as long as it needs to be. And the reason "This Strange Engine" needs to be as long as it is is that that is how long it takes to tell the story it tells, which is the story of the life a young man by the name of Steve Hogarth. Hey, I just used the phrase "is is that that" in a sentence that I'm pretty sure is gramatically correct. I think that's pretty awesome. But I digress, of course.
It's about Hogarth's father as much as it is about himself; he sacrificed a lot for the boy growing up, and this is Steve trying to give something in return. None of this knowledge is or should be necessary to understanding or enjoyment of the track, of course. "Intentional fallacy", they call it. I like that, it has almost as much of a delightfully archaic ring to it as "This Strange Engine". But quite aside from the whole "the work should speak for itself" thing, you don't need to know that, because all the details of the story are laid out pretty clearly in the song. You don't need to know why Hogarth is so personally invested in the boy who came into this world at the hands of a holy woman, in a holy place (except to note 'oh dear, he's talking about himself in the third person. How pretentious.'); you need to know why you should be invested.
I'm talking in circles all over the place, and I don't know if I'm getting out what I want to say, because writing about something as huge in scope as this can be a little difficult. You can break this song into pretty clear sections, maybe that'll help. Divide and conquer.
So, section one. The boy comes into the world and lives out his childhood, while his father is out having seafaring adventures in far away lands. The music is mostly piano-led, and seems to display an air of hope, of possibility for what the boy could become.
After the childhood, of course, comes the inevitable teenage angst, of questioning his existence. "Ever since I was a boy/I never felt that I belonged/Like everything they did to me/Was an experiment to see/In which direction would I jump". The bass kicks in hardcore with a pretty fantastic funk groove for this part, which might just be my favourite section of the song. It's teenage angst, but some of us take a long time to grow out of that, maybe never do, and evidently Hogarth is one such example; "Thirty-five summers down the line/The wisdom of each passing year/Seems to serve only to confuse".
This breaks into a nice chaotic keyboard solo before a moment of calm. Backtracking a little; the father gives up his seafaring adventures and goes to work in a coal mine. "Took his dream underground/Buried his treasure in his faraway eyes". That's a pretty moving sacrifice, all told. There's a nice flair for seemingly irrelevant but nonetheless pretty wonderful detail displayed throughout the song, like the "magical purple glow in the chrome of the exhaust of his Triumph motorbike" here. It's all in the details; that's why, for the most part, I think Fish is a far better lyricist than Hogarth or Helmer; he's always putting things like that in. Sometimes a little too much, but I think that's the better side to err in this field.
This calm, naturally, precedes a storm; "a cloud of bees with no particular aim and no brain/Found the boy, decided that his time had come/Came down out of the sky/Stung him in the face/Again and again". There's a lot of contradiction in the lyrics in this part; on the one hand he's saying that the bees have "no particular aim and no brain" and "I can't explain" and yet on the other he describes it as "like being chosen" and claims that the bess "decided that his time had come". Evidently this is a fairly significant event in the boy's life, if it bears mention in this biography. I get the sense that this seemingly random attack and the huge pain it brought probably caused a pretty severe doubt to form in the boy's faith in a higher power.
Anyway, after expressing a longing plea for a return to his childhood innocence ("Oh Mummy, Daddy, won't you sit a while with me/Oh Mummy, Daddy will you jog my memory/Tell me tall tales of Montego Bay..."), Hogarth finally gets to answering the central question on all of our minds; what exactly is the secret of Monkey Island? No, wait, I mean 'What exactly is the "strange engine" in the title?' And, of course, the secret ingredient is love; it's the heart that defies Newton's laws of motion, again. What else could it be? And this strange engine does a lot of things; it puzzles, it knows no faith, it tries and fails and tries again, it bleeds and dies for you, it is to blame, and is ashamed, but above all else, it is true.