Marillion’s last album, 2016’s FEAR (Fuck Everyone And Run), was the perfect state-of-the-nation address. A dark, existential dissection of modern ‘Britishness’, released in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, it held a mirror up to society and didn’t particularly like what it saw.
This follow-up is equally timely. Work on An Hour Before It’s Dark began in early 2020 just as Covid-19 started to take hold, and continued as uncertainty, anxiety and death rates began to soar in the world outside the studio walls. It was inevitable that global events were going to impact the music Marillion were making. And so it proved.
Yet while An Hour Before It’s Dark has every right to be an exercise in sad-face navel-gazing, the result is anything but. The spectre of the pandemic inevitably hovers over its six tracks, but emotions that flow through the album aren’t so much fear or anger as compassion and hope.
Opening track and first single Be Hard On Yourself is a dramatic nine-minute exhortation to wake up to the destructiveness of blind consumerism before it’s too late, yet it swerves finger-wagging in favour of an emotional plea for action.
When the band do confront the pandemic head-on, as with the sparkling Murder Machines’ thinly veiled humans-as-inadvertent-virus-carrying-killers, there’s an urgency to the music that was missing on the sometimes insular FEAR.
But not everything is tied in directly with events of the past two years: The Crow And The Nightingale is singer Steve Hogarth’s lyrically vivid tribute to Leonard Cohen, and Sierra Leone is a tale of dignity and hope amid the poverty of the titular West African country.
But it’s on the magnificent final track Care where Marillion truly lean into everything that’s happened recently, and tie all the strands of the album together. Beginning with images of a hospital patient kept alive by ‘maintenance drugs’, it morphs and grows over the next 15 minutes into a hymn to the NHS and the care workers that kept things running during the darkness.
‘The angels in the world are not in the walls of churches,’ sings Steve Hogarth, as a choir builds behind him. It feels like 18 months of pent-up emotion being released. It’s a stirring, hopeful end to a record that should, by rights, be neither stirring nor hopeful.
An Hour Before It’s Dark is more than just one of the finest albums of Marillion’s career, it stands as a beacon of hope as we slowly begin to emerge from the bleakest of times.