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The Jazz Butcher - The Highest in the Land (Tapete)

4 February 2022

Thanks to high profile efforts by Warren Zevon and David Bowie, it’s not unusual to hear records made by artists who know their times are limited. Add to that list The Highest in the Land, the final effort from Pat Fish, AKA the Jazz Butcher. Though he was free of the cancer he’d been fighting for years by that point, Fish knew he was nearing the end as he finished his twelfth studio album, and made sure he left a hell of a legacy behind.

The record begins with “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar,” the type of perfectly delectable tongue-twisting guitar pop expected from Fish and his cohorts (which include his original axe-slinging sidekick Max Eider). The impressionistic title track continues the streak along the same lines, while the instrumental “Amalfi Coast May 1963” keeps tongue slightly in cheek with its evocation of sixties-style interlude music. Of course, there’s more here than mere whimsy. The folky “Sea Madness” pays loving tribute to a Turkish immigrant, while the rollicking “Sebastian’s Medication” and the countrified “Running On Fumes” turn his sharply observant eye toward Brexit (and finds it wanting).

But where the album really shines is when Fish contemplates the end of the road. “My hair’s all wrong/My time ain’t long/Fishie go to heaven get along get along” he sings with a sardonic joie de vivre on “Time,” refusing to let his sense of humor abandon him. The line “How can anyone ever be ready for years?” indicates the truth wears on him in “Never Give Up,” which also includes the plea “I would tear my stupid life in two/To have an hour alone with you.” A glimmer of hope shines on that couplet, though, as it’s followed by “You said, ‘That might be arranged.’” The melodies refuse to let the light dim.

The record ends with the gorgeous “Goodnight Sweetheart,” which explores the gray area between disappointment and beauty. “We want to be handled softly, kissed, and told that we’re worth something,” Fish sings, before ending with the repeated invocation of the title. It’s impossible not to be moved by this lovely conclusion to the recording career of a remarkable songwriter. You just want to reach out, touch Fish’s shoulder and reassure him that, as made clear by The Highest in the Land, he’s worth everything.