In the opening to his lengthy 1939 academic lecture to the University of St. Andrews, Professor J.R.R. Tolkien warned that those who entered myth did so at great peril to themselves and to the very realm of myth itself. That realm, Tolkien stated, is
wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveler who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should shut and the keys be lost.
This passage—one I have treasured for many years now—immediately sprang to mind as I began listening to the first two songs of the forthcoming album, English Electric Part One, from Big Big Train. The first song, “The First Rebreather,” could be a restatement, in full, of Tolkien’s 1939 paragraph.
We invite everyone in, Spawton and co., seem to be saying. In fact, we welcome every one of you.
But, beware. There’s darkness ahead.
In the opening song, guided by the flawless voice of Longdon and equally flawless lyrics of Spawton, the listener encounters a darkness almost beyond measure.
There’s “morning light.” That’s good. And, there’s sun. That’s also good. Well mostly. As it turns out, it’s merely “midwinter sun.” Not the best time of year for looking out from beneath the water. This is exactly what will happen in moment, as the machine-dug tunnel is only moments from being overtaken by water.
A malicious spirit—no playful river god–has awoken. “Run boys run—toward the light,” the leader commands.
Possessed of a courage greater than things merely mortal, the man “will walk into the darkness one foot in front of the other,” willing to move even into the black heart of the underworld, into Dante’s Fifth Circle, home to the sin of Wrath.
To enter into myth, Tolkien reminded the Scottish faculty in 1939, is to immerse oneself in something extraordinary and mysterious and beautiful, but it always has its perils.
BBT has welcomed us in, and we’ve made it. Full immersion.
Every thing one would expect and want in a BBT song is here and then some. As mentioned earlier, Longdon’s vocals are perfect. They guide the listener, ask us to imagine the unimaginable, and lead us to victory. Spawton, too, is at the height of his lyric writing and his references to Dante and (I presume) Eliot come across as terrifying as well as warm, but we’re reminded that life and myth are things of the highest seriousness. David Gregory’s guitar is immaculate. Throw in Nick d’Virgilio’s soulful drumming, (The Tangent) Andy Tillison’s keys, cello, viola, flute, vibes, tambourine, two violins, bass and you have an epic. And, just to make it a bit better, add the engineering and production of Poole and Aubrey. Yes, it really doesn’t get much better than this.
Now that we’ve been guided into, across, and through the darkness, we emerge into a light that is gloriously blinding, “Uncle Jack.”
From an American standpoint (and also the standpoint of one who really despises labels), my first thought regarding “Uncle Jack” was “this is Appalachian prog!” But, I seriously doubt that the fine members of BBT are looking to start yet another prog sub-genre. Almost twenty-five years ago, one of the best books ever written on Anglo-American history, David H. Fisher’s Albion’s Seed, revealed that almost all colonial American folkways (from dialects to home building to song to wedding customs) found their origins in specific areas of the British isles. My ignorant guess is that the music of “Uncle Jack” has its origin in some English village culture now lost.
Well, lost to everyone but BBT. “Uncle Jackdaw/You see he’s heard it all before/Ancient and reborn.”
To continue with the Tolkienian theme, it seems rather clear to me that Uncle Jack is related either to Tom Bombadil or Farmer Maggot. And, even if there’s no direct connection through blood, Uncle Jack has conversed with each on the borders of the Old Forest, frequently.
I’ve listened to “Uncle Jack” many, many times, and I’ve yet to listen to it without a huge grin from the opening note to the last sound effect. There’s a bit of XTC and a bit of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young in here, but, over all, it’s pure, unadulturated joyous BBT.
For those of you who know BBT, you should be scratching your head at that last full paragraph. While BBT always conjures up truth, goodness, and, especially, beauty, very rarely would it conjure the notion of joy. Almost all BBT music can be characterized as autumnal and melancholic. Even in its more humorous moments, such as our getting to meet the rather whimsical and loveably flawed Fat Billy (track two of “Far Skies Deep Time”), we faithful know fully well that BBT themes often revolve around tragedy.
Well, one of the most interesting developments regarding BBT is that this album is also filled with joy, and it fits the band very well.
Indeed, the opening two songs of this magnificent work of art reveal everything mythical about the album, English Electric Part One, as a whole: of course there is darkness, for this is a world of tragedy and sorrow, but, ultimately, such weaknesses in the human condition can be conquered by and through fortitude, hope, and love.
At the risk of being accused of hyperbole (and, yes, it wouldn’t be the first time!), I will state this as bluntly as possible: prog rock is at the height of its powers right now (and has been reemerging slowly over the last two decades); Big Big Train is the best prog band around (and, there’s lots and lots of competition; so much good music right now); and this is BBT’s best album.
“Ancient and reborn.” Without question.
[To celebrate the creativity and ingenuity of the human spirit and mind, The Imaginative Conservative will giving away five signed copies of BBT’s September 3rd release, English Electric Part One. To be eligible, simply comment on a TIC/BBT related post here or on Facebook. Make sure you let us know how to get ahold of you. Comment as many times as you like!]
Greg Spawton and David Longdon (each as thoughtful as one would assume) have been keeping a diary/log of their thoughts on each song of the forthcoming album. Greg’s blog is here, and David’s is here.
To pre-order BBT’s English Electric Part One, go here. These are wonderful artists and entrepreneurs. Every purchase directly benefits the cause of the good, the true, and the beautiful!
Books on the topic discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.