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A Lucid Career Put to Restless Rest – “Deciduous Eccentric” by Stephen Hero [including interview with Patrick Fitzgerald]

Stephen Hero
Deciduous Eccentric

Written by:

Born poignant.

It can’t be possible, it isn’t possible, and in fact, as a concept, it must almost certainly invite such disbelief and outright incredulity as to reduce the phrase to little more than an unfortunate bit of linguistic gimcrackery. And yet, and yet…in the case of Patrick Fitzgerald, the man behind the Stephen Hero persona, based on the work he’s produced over the past three decades since first emerging in the late ’80’s as the bass player, singer, and primary lyricist with Kitchens of Distinction, the presumed absurdity baked into those initial two words up there gets turned decidedly inside out as the challenge becomes disproving them. It’s a task made all that much more difficult with the arrival of Deciduous Eccentric, an album determined by its author to be his last, or anyway the last insofar as the slowly eroding record-release-promote model is concerned. In its quietude and fortitude, it’s an astonishing work but then, looking back, who’s surprised.

There was, after all, in the ethereal but oh-so-real work of KoD, a quality so immediate and lasting, so delicate yet tough as tungsten wire it could make one care about music nearly as much as one cared for oneself, a response that in turn might well lead a listener to a more honest, unmasked relationship with their own vulnerability, a result which, irony be praised, can only make a person stronger. That’s a lot to attribute to any work of art, not least, of course, quote unquote pop music, but then again, we’d argue, it is exactly that innate transaction that underlies every fervent declaration however articulated of ‘music saved my life.’

That point made, it would naturally be tempting to draw a kind of holistic parallel between Fitzgerald’s intentions as a songwriter and the many years he’s spent in his real-world job as a doctor (a career put on hold when KoD formed). But I hesitate, not so much because it’s reflexively facile but rather because one suspects with near certainty that the creating of that music that has provoked and soothed and above all sought to extract beauty from the complicated business of living – there’s often a shimmer welling just beneath the surface of his songs that might suggest a touch of escapism except for the fact it’s most often caught in the teeth of reality – has been at least as therapeutic and necessary for him as it has for his audience. Whatever the case, this swan song, shining inside its ruminative husk, its autumnal shadows cast by the inextinguishable flame that flares despite the uncertainties of the artist that lights it, could hardly be more svelte of line nor, well, poignant of verse.

“The Green North,” opening, looms gently into view with a shiver of strings and a piano melody both sprightly and mournful. Full of everyday reverie, over-spilling with wondrous night-lit imagery like an English Rousseau that was born a songwriter, on just about any other record it could well be considered an odd choice with which to set the album’s tone but for Fitzgerald’s purposes here this piece of fluid bucolic poetry, serving as it does as a eulogy/tribute to all things (and people) floating behind him in the distant-but-close, gone-but-not-gone past, it’s essentially a mission statement.


“Colin,” Semay Wu’s cello yawing in all its sorrowful grace, the tentative empathy of an electric piano clutching the melody like a string of pearls, paints a portrait of “the girl in white tonight [who’s] tomorrow a boy once more” with such vividly  human warmth it’s nearly impossible not to summon her yourself, the mirage of an aging debutante queen made flesh before your inner eye. It’s an evocativeness which, rather inevitably given its predominantly elegiac mood, permeates the whole of Deciduous Eccentric. Even the jauntier “Fly A Rocket,” a track that begins with a “Day in the Life”-like string passage before calling up Brian Wilson’s teenage ghost (“Captain, oh captain, hoist up the John B sails“), emerges from the mist as a largely existential outing, the narrator’s viewpoint tacking darker as the voyage drifts later into the day (“Captain, oh captain, help me wear the skin of a wiser man“). It’s a parable that hardly needs unpacking in the context of this record, delivered with what might well be called a fragile complexity (or perhaps an understated richness; there’s an underlying layer of detail to it that exhilarates with its subtlety), the track’s arrangement built on shifting, sleight-of-hand movements that leave one slightly off-balance and fully riveted. Quite the tour-de-force for what at first blush would appear, in most respects, a quiet albeit sublime slice of baroque pop. But then again, that’s an observation that could credibly be applied to the whole of this album.


Consider: the keening sonority of “Gunshot in the Fog,” raining piano throughout and drenched in longing; “Patient Here Myself” stepping gingerly through its clever autobio construct – Fitzgerald the doctor has found himself, with due concern, on the other end of the stethoscope – the lightness of its touch feeling nonetheless fraught as the piano and Will Fulford-Jones’ violin dance each other down the linoleum hallways (“Skinny Cupboard Pill Boy, immediately in its wake, could be heard as “Patient”‘s crepuscular echo); the wintry, lovely closer “Don’t Say It’s Too Late,” its often-sharp lyric (“the seesaw dishonesty, Bacardi and gin / come home loose-tongued, expecting a grin) held in deft check by Nyro-esque piano and a trembling bow, the singer pivoting in its final minute toward a softer exit, to accept with last testament finesse that while there be plenty of pleading there is in the end no actual bargaining.


All these and the rest – and “Stripping Oliver” should not go unmentioned, the beauty heartbreaks its sparseness – while passing with the mortal fleetingness of a valedictory address, a seasoned musical diary entry meant for all to hear, produces a cumulative impact beyond the sum of its individual tracks. It’s in this way that, beyond the eloquence of its frankness – a longstanding Fitzgerald trait – one can trace a reverse arc from this farewell suite of darkly pastoral songs to the slicing, chrome-plated pop of, say, “Railwayed,” an arc fashioned from exactly the same daring honesty of purpose and reflex for the timeless melody on display here.

To be certain, as living elegies go, Deciduous Eccentric is an edgy one, no punches pulled, the squint into the coming night unflinching. Despite (and, yes, because of) this, there’s an aching joy to bear listening witness to an artist of this candor lay the capstone on what has been a lucid, compelling career. Born poignant? Well, maybe maybe not whatever, but Patrick Fitzgerald’s body of work over these past three decades, put to beautiful and restless rest by this intimate, richly brocaded final statement, has little parallel.


SEM: The most striking and immediate line in the press release for Deciduous Eccentric is of course the one that begins “For his final album…” Those are four weighty words with a lot to unpack. While the span of your musical career from the release of Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell in 1989 to DE here in 2019 provides the built-in ‘advantage’ of a nicely-rounded chronological hook to hang a retirement date on, there’s obviously a whole lot that factored in that decision. Could you give a quick (or not-so-) rundown of those factors, knowing that there are a lot of us out here that receive that news with a bittersweet pang of melancholy?

PATRICK FITZGERALD: To misquote Orson Welles, if you want a happy ending you have to know when to stop the story. 30 years of doing recordings is part of the reason to stop. The bigger issue for me is what has happened to music in that time. What’s a record for anymore? I can’t remember the last time I bought a record. I buy downloads, but oddly it’s not the same for me. I think this isn’t an issue at all if you’re younger and come into the musical landscape as it stands. Spotify is fine and amazing, yet requires no emotional investment. You can have whatever you want, whenever you want, but you don’t necessarily know what you want because you can’t find it. Conundrum of plenty. A close friend left her work in theatre about 5 years ago, sensing that it had lost its way for her. All this effort, the huge resources, for what? She passed on Suzi Gablik’s books The Re-enchantment of Art and Conversations Before the End of Time. Lucy Neal’s book, Playing for Time, Making Art As If The World Mattered. Confrontational books, asking why are you doing what you’re doing in these times of extinction? Repetition of format and ease of production is not the answer for me. Having made what I think is my favourite and most honest record, it’s a time for reconsideration of what I’m trying to make/say/do. In other words, shut the fuck up, Patrick, and find a new way of telling your stories. I currently have no clue what that might look like. There is something about making music without electricity, without resources, in the dark, that appeals to me. Which means not recording it. I can’t twist my way out of this paradox, so I’m stopping, looking around, waiting for a bolt of inspiration. This may take a while.

SEM: There is, I feel, a twist of irony in the fact that the ‘wonder’ of the internet age has devalued to near zero a vast swath of creative endeavor at a period of human history where there’s a more-than-remote chance that civilization is hurtling toward a period wherein they’ll have no choice anyway, as there’ll be no market to speak of except the black market. I mean, should that be the case at least artists will be accustomed to financial privation. Have you thought whether you’d have made this ‘final album’ decision had the environment (literally and figuratively) been more artist-friendly and sustainable?

PF:I really do feel that I’ve made the records I wanted to make. I’ve made enough of this kind of record and I’m not sure I can make anything
significantly different without being dishonest to my heart. Time now for me to try something else. New music, for me, is divided into that which sounds familiar, and that which I can’t comprehend – I have no shape in my heart for it. This of course could be generational. I don’t understand the continued appeal of the autotuned vocal. That’s partly taste, but also partly me being middle-aged. I go to classical concerts mostly now. When you switch radio stations in the UK between classical and pop, the effect is pronounced. The loss of compression, the sense of space, the sound of people making sounds themselves rather than programming machines to do it for them. I know how luddite this may sound, but I’m not averse to electronics. I find them difficult in isolation and exclusivity. I prefer some aspect of humanity in
there to cause, I don’t know, mistakes? Is that what I’m missing in pop? When Charlie XCX and SOPHIE do their thing they are celebrating the artifice – good for them. But when Lana Del Ray does it on Norman F Rockwell she allows the machines to sound more natural – to me! Her sibilance is amplified, her harmonies uncorrected. That sits better with my grey ears. So, blathering on here, in this time, when punk has met its ideal of anyone being able to make noise and put it out there, I am reduced to a loss of engagement because there is a glutton of plenty and there is no filter. NME gone, radio playlisted (though there are of course rare exceptions to this who I will listen to and help me find new music), Spotify selling slots on their ‘groomed’ playlists. Just for you. Creepy. This is not a time to sell music. It’s a time to make and celebrate and play it, but the selling has become a weird mess. I look forward to the solutions, because I haven’t found one.
SEM:Did you know going in that Deciduous Eccentric was going to be your last record? Whichever the case, what was the dynamic between that decision and the songs? Were they written prior to knowing or after or both? Did that knowledge effect how they were arranged or produced? I ask because the record seems to have a palpable valedictory feel to it – the cello alone can’t help but induce that impression, at least as it’s heard here – or am I just reading that into it?
PF: Yes, this was always going to be the last one. The decision gave me permission to be as obtuse or as structured as I wanted to be. The songs were written around the same time as Oskar’s Drum’s Degenerate Art – so they played against that, looking for a quieter earthier space. I really wanted very little in terms of percussion. I wanted the piano and cello to be core, in empathy with my favourite records: Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Lambchop’s Is A Woman, Nick Cave’s And No More Shall We Part, Roberta
Flack’s First Take, Nina Simone – any fucking record of hers! I wanted hints of Sciarrino, Britten, R Strauss all the classical crap I love. Pushed into the blender of what I still think of as pop music. What else can it be?
SEM: And speaking of what shaped what, looking back over the journey from the late 80’s to 2019, does it feel more like the experience shaped you or that you had a pretty steady hand on the tiller most of the way? I mean, if the Patrick of 1989 could look at the Patrick now, would the reaction be ‘Yeah, that seems about right?’ or ‘Who the hell is that guy?’
PF: Love is Hell to this record, 17 of them I think. Too many. 26 year-old me would think this was a nice record, but embarrassingly out of keeping with current times. An oddity, to be played to friends when drunk and tired. What a strange old man! I sometimes listen back to my records, and can pick one or two songs on each that don’t make me cringe. I think that’s pretty good. Though I have no idea what I was doing or why I did it. When I released my first solo record (Fruit) some wit in NME said: Here is his first solo album, though you wondered why he bothered. It was such a drive, that’s why I bothered. You don’t question these things if you are driven, like a lunatic, into pointless exercises. You obey the drive and deal with the consequences later.
SEM: Aside from it informing a track like “Patient Here Myself,” in what ways, if at all, has your having been a doctor for quite a number of years influenced your work as a songwriter?
PF: I was a GP, but now I’m now medical director of a hospice. I think given the weight of the work, I now don’t have the time I would like
to give to music. I’ve also been ill off and on for 12 years, which has impeded me too. It makes its way into the music. The reminders of
mortality give a lightness to my life, but a darkness to my musical work; I see that. The medical work has always been problematic as I’ve not
enjoyed it until now. Hospice work is satisfying; I’ve found a place, unlike in music, where I fit in.
SEM: Don’t know what your process is insofar as songwriting is concerned but I would guess that, after all this time of stringing words and chords together, the musical reflex won’t just up and quit you. Do you think you’ll continue crafting songs as ideas occur, just minus any intent outside their creation?
PF: I’ve already written a few pieces of instrumental repetitive music. (Trying to get to grips with Reich/Glass/Adams – can you take this stuff and turn it into pop songs? Isn’t that what Laurie Anderson did already??) . I can’t stop playing and won’t. No plans to record, but to keep playing and playing. Good for my head/soul/fingers/neighbours. If I chance upon something radically different and exciting to what I’ve already made, then who knows what I’ll do with it? I just don’t see how that can happen without me becoming someone else. Now there’s an idea.