Essential New Music: The Jazz Butcher’s “The Highest In The Land”

For devoted, longtime fans of Pat Fish (a.k.a. the Jazz Butcher), The Highest In The Land could be a difficult listen, as the brilliant, occasionally eccentric but always entertaining British singer/songwriter died of a heart attack in October at 63. It’s a treat to have another Butcher outing—the first since 2012’s The Last Of The Gentlemen Adventurers—but spins of this final LP are almost unbearably sad in spots.

The Highest In The Land’s nine songs were penned over a seven-year period, part of which saw Fish undergo cancer treatment. He was free of the disease during recording, but the subject of mortality permeates the proceedings. Of course, this is said with the knowledge of Fish’s untimely demise; maybe if he were still alive, lyrics like “My time ain’t long/Fishy go to heaven, get along, get along” (from the nearly funky “Time”) would be heard in a different light, as the Butcher addressed death many times over his roughly 40-year career.

Or maybe if this was his latest outing and not his last, the closing, elegiac “Goodnight Sweatheart” wouldn’t hit so hard: “Here we are, where life became impossible/We want to be handled softly, kissed and told that we’re worth something.” (Cue the waterworks when Fish quietly says, “Goodnight,” at the song’s conclusion.) Fairly subdued musically, The Highest In The Land isn’t all doom and gloom. Fish’s always sharp sense of humor remained intact, with funny and insightful moments like “Running On Fumes” and “Sebastian’s Medication” shining just as brightly as the poignant ones.

Most of the aforementioned aficionados will feel that The Highest In The Land stands with the best of the Butcher’s catalog; it may be too soon to fully cop to that, but that’s only because the bar is so damn high. Either way, it serves as a beautiful epitaph for a great, underrated artist gone far too soon, and that’s reason enough to celebrate its existence even as we mourn the passing of its creator.

—Matt Hickey