Terence Trent D’Arby’s Neither Fish Nor Flesh (A Soundtrack of Love, Faith, Hope, & Destruction)
Musical artists get more and more popular with the public until they have that one new album that is surely going to be another hit — but instead it flops — starting their downward spiral into irrelevance. In this new series, I’ll be discussing that album that nearly every musician has in their catalogue, the ‘fallout album’ and how it holds up years later.
In the late 1980s, Terence Trent D’Arby was riding high. His debut album, 1987’s Introducing The Hardline spawned two Top 5 singles, including the iconic “Wishing Well” that went all the way to #1. The album was a revelation: a mix of R&B, pop, and modern funk rock led by D’Arby’s gravelly, soulful voice. His ride to stardom came seemingly out of nowhere, culminating with a Grammy win in early 1989 in the category of Best R&B Male Vocal Performance. He was a multi-instrumentalist who wrote his own songs, co-produced his debut album, and had a voice and a talent that managed to be unique and stand out amid the standard pop dross of the late 80s.
Terence Trent D’Arby was poised to reach even greater heights with his sophomore album. However, the album absolutely tanked upon arrival. I was just a kid back in 1988 when I bought TTD’s debut album (on cassette because that was what you did back then). I loved the album, and not just for the hit singles. It was intelligent and soulful, yet accessible to the pop charts and my own young ears. But as much as I enjoyed that album, I barely recall the 1989 follow-up even being released. I was one of the many who just plain forgot about Terence Trent D’Arby. Recently, just over 30 years later, I decided to finally give it a listen and try to figure out how it all went so wrong.
First off, Terence Trent D’Arby didn’t do himself any favors with the grandiose pretensions he had concerning his music. Around the time of the release of Introducing The Hardline, he told interviewers that his debut album was the most important piece of music since The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper (for the record, Introducing The Hardline is a damn good bunch of songs without a weak moment among them, but it’s not quite that good). He also pronounced that he was going to be as big as Michael Jackson and Madonna, and took every chance he could get to tout his own genius. Later on, he tried to backtrack and say that these proclamations were just an attempt to ensure that his debut album stood out from all the others. He didn’t want his music to get lost in the crowd and go unheard. But by making those initial declarations, the seeds of his eventual failure were already being sown. It’s difficult to get into the public’s good graces when you start off being so brazenly pretentious, and word quickly got around about TTD’s huge ego. ‘Who is this guy saying he’s better than The Beatles? He recorded what, one album?’
Secondly, as Neither Fish Nor Flesh neared completion, Terence Trent D’Arby insisted that his label release no singles or videos from the new album. He wanted people to experience the album as a whole. This sort of aspiration is nothing new to the pop world. Artists ranging from Jethro Tull to Pearl Jam to MGMT have played this game over the years, hoping their audience would sit down and appreciate their latest album in its entirety. Even Prince attempted it back in 1985 with Around the World in a Day. However, he acquiesced one month later, finally releasing the song ‘Raspberry Beret’ as a single. At that time, Prince was one of the biggest superstars in music. If he couldn’t get away with an album with no singles, Terence Trent D’Arby should have realized what an idealistic and futile venture it would be for his own album just a few years later. Back in the 80s, holding back songs from Top 40 radio was akin to total commercial suicide. Even the megastars would have taken a huge financial hit from this, and TTD wasn’t even close to being in megastar territory yet, no matter what he had been telling everyone.
Finally, TTD insisted that his sophomore album be released in October 1989 to coincide with the Christmas season, which is historically a very competitive market. Major labels dropped a lot of new music during this time, hoping to pick up some extra holiday sales. Neither Fish Nor Flesh was already at a huge disadvantage with no singles being played on the radio. Now it was being thrown into the lion’s den, forced to compete with new releases from pop stalwarts Aerosmith, Billy Joel, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins, and Taylor Dayne (I know what you’re thinking, but Taylor Dayne was really big at the time).
I sat down and listened to Neither Fish Nor Flesh and I was somewhat surprised to find out that it’s a good album. But from the beginning, the album seems almost designed to have limited commercial potential. The first track is a nearly two-minute spoken-word piece with sound effects and swirling guitars. Here’s where TTD’s pretension declares itself: This Is An Important Album. It’s the sort of bizarre track that Prince would try to pull off. Interesting, but not something you’d ever replay outside of listening to the album in full. It’s followed by ‘I Have Faith In These Desolate Times’, an almost a cappella tune punctuated by the occasional plucking of what the accompanying booklet calls a ‘koto water harp’. It’s a somber song but a good one, coming alive in the last minute when some drums and funky guitar kick in. Okay Terence, it’s been a bizarre and ambitious start, surely now we’re ready to rock! Except we aren’t.
‘It Feels So Good to Love Someone Like You’ is next, and it’s a gently psychedelic ballad. Another great song, very beautiful and spacey. It’s the sort of tune that evokes laying in bed as the sun rises after a night of lovemaking. A song like this would feel at home on a Prince album. Then we’re on to the next song ‘To Know Someone Deeply Is To Know Someone Softly’, a punchy little R&B ballad. The instrumentation is lush and ornate throughout, and so far, all of this album has been good. The problem is that we are already a third of the way through the album and all the songs have been gentle ballads. TTD’s debut album had begun with ‘If You All Get To Heaven’, an ominous and heavy statement of purpose. Over here on Neither Fish Nor Flesh, we’ve been listening for 15 minutes and it’s all a bunch of light balladry. The material has worth but I can’t help but wonder if TTD sabotaged himself with the sequencing of the songs on the album. I couldn’t help but think that these first few tunes would have benefitted greatly by being interspersed between some more rollicking numbers. It doesn’t help that these ballads don’t have the immediate poppy hooks of his past slow jams like ‘Sign Your Name’. If I didn’t know any better, these first few songs would make me think I was listening to some new-age musician. I can imagine that a lot of fans who bought the new album (with no singles on the radio to give any hints as to what other types of music the album may contain) must have tuned out by this point, tossing the cassette into the corner. They wanted pop music and funk, not a bunch of slow songs with weird instrumentation.
Finally, over a minute into the fifth track ‘I’ll Be Alright’, TTD suddenly remembers that it’s okay to make dance music again and we get a fantastic song featuring a horn section and some Hammond organ and a playful, soulful vocal performance. But while this is an excellent song, it’s still miles away from the more blatant pop sensibilities that TTD put on display with ‘Wishing Well’ from just a couple of years prior. The music of his debut album was a fresh, intriguing mix of organic and electronic instrumentation. Neither Fish Nor Flesh is more psychedelic and gospel-sounding. It’s easy to see how fickle fans started jumping ship.
Success in the music industry relies on the artist finding a type of groove that is popular with the audience, then repeating that same groove ad nauseum for years, with minimal variation. The general public doesn’t like change or musicians reinventing themselves (unless it’s someone like Madonna whose reinvention was mainly cosmetic rather than on a musical level). By the time track 5 finished playing, I started to get the idea that TTD had the misfortune to lose his pop audience with this album. Yet, he hadn’t gained enough of a foothold in the industry to successfully rebrand himself as a more earthy, soulful version of Prince.
The sixth song is ‘Billy Don’t Fall’. This one sounds like it almost could have been a hit. It’s catchy enough and it’s upbeat and fun. But it’s the lyrics that are holding this song back. The narrator tells the story of Billy, a gay dude who gets bullied and eventually dies (presumably of AIDS). TTD had balls to record a pro-gay song in 1989; I’ll give him that. But he also dips into slight homophobia with the chorus of ‘Billy, my friend, don’t fall in love with me. I’m not that kind of guy but I’ll stand by your side if you need me to be’. It gives off a strange vibe where the narrator feels like he has to repeatedly warn Billy not to try anything with him. It’s like TTD is progressive enough to write a gay anthem but has to keep reminding everyone that he’s ‘not that kind of guy’. So in the end, the song manages to be pro-gay and also a little bit insulting. But whatever, it was 1989 and you didn’t see anyone else in the pop world writing about this kind of stuff. Even gay men like George Michael shied away from taking a positive stance on homosexuality.
Next up is ‘This Side of Love’, which was eventually released as a single one month after the album was released as a last-ditch attempt to sell some records. The approach didn’t work and the single didn’t even chart in America. The song is excellent, however, with some dirty guitar work and Terence in top vocal form (with some string instruments thrown in at the end!). But I can’t imagine this song getting played on Top 40 radio next to Belinda Carlisle and Tone Loc. It’s catchy but not as immediately accessible as TTD’s previous singles. Nevertheless, it’s an album highlight.
The next three songs, ‘Attracted To You’ and ‘Roly Poly’, and ‘You Will Pay Tomorrow’ are fun, danceable funk jams. I would have loved to have seen these songs performed in concert because I can see them really bringing the house down. This is just good, old-fashioned funk rock music. In particular, ‘Roly Poly’ is a neo-soul-funk-psychedelic playground all rolled up in a 4-minute package. And the gleeful horns on ‘You Will Pay Tomorrow’ are reminiscent of the vibe on Prince’s ‘It’s Gonna Be A Beautiful Night’ from the Sign O’ The Times album.
The penultimate track, ‘I Don’t Want To Bring Your Gods Down’, is the standout song on the album. TTD has such power and soul in his voice, and the organ and the horns turn this one into a full-blown modern gospel masterpiece. This is really amazing music recorded by an artist at the peak of his abilities…but again, it’s unlike anything being played on popular radio at the time. At this point in my listening experience, I started to feel sad that this obviously talented musician released such a great album that went virtually unnoticed.
The album finishes with ‘And I Need To Be With Someone Tonight’, an a cappella number that is well done and has merit but ends things on a kind of solemn note (well the album started off being solemn so the proceedings have been brought full circle, at least).
I wish I could have been in the studio with Terence back in 1989 to help him sequence the album. Four ballads are bookending the album, including three at the very start that totally kills the momentum before it even begins. I think if Neither Fish Nor Flesh had started with ‘Some Kind of Love’ or maybe another one of the more upbeat tunes, it might not have been so quick to push listeners away.
My final verdict is that this is a good album, not a great one. I still prefer TTD’s debut over this one. But with a little reordering of the songs and maybe just one more solid, epic tune (along the lines of ‘Wishing Well’), this could have been one of the greats. It certainly didn’t deserve the harsh treatment it received from the music press and the public. It’s definitely something I will listen to again, and I have a feeling it’s going to grow on me.
After the commercial disaster of Neither Fish Nor Flesh, Terence Trent D’Arby attempted a comeback with 1993’s Symphony or Damn. I remember that MTV regularly played the video for its lead single ‘She Kissed Me’ and I actually bought this album when it was released. But he never came close to regaining the popularity he had before. After a couple more albums that went unnoticed, Terence Trent D’Arby changed his name to Sananda Maitreya and continues to record music to this day. In his own words, “Neither Fish Nor Flesh was the project that literally killed TTD, and from whose molten ashes began the life of Sananda.”