Well, Imaginative Conservative readers, I must admit, this post makes me sad. I have been thrilled to promote the work of Greg Spawton, David Longdon, Dave Gregory, Andy Poole, Nick D’Virgilio, and the entire Big Big Train team (Rob Aubrey, Kathy Blanchard, Jim Trainer, Sandra Olma, and others). Not only have they been utterly professional in the two years I’ve corresponded with them (mostly Greg), but I think they take true delight in inviting their listeners to be an intimate part of their art. They’re entrepreneurial, confident, adventuresome, well read, articulate, moving, harmonious, and seekers of the best things in life. What’s not to love about them?
One only has to peruse BBT’s Facebook forum, one of the single best spots for online discussion of music, progressive rock, science fiction, poetry, and even the art of making stained glass, to understand how many fascinating people are attracted to the depths of Spawton, Longdon, and Co. Indeed, the conversation never feels restricted or forced as the fans of Big Big Train are as interesting as the band. Alison, Lisa, Thad, Richard, Tobbe, Nicholas, Captain Redbeard, Chris, the Amazing Wilf, Mikael, Ian, Andy, Rob, Evert, Russell, Jack, Nellie, Steve, Frank, Pablo, Alex, Neil, Geoff, Christian, Brian. Even guitar giant, Matt Stevens, chimes in. On Twitter, there’s also John and Nick and others. For what it’s worth, I think we all really like each other! The good Lord knows they put up with my occasional outbursts (well, ok, not as occasional as they should be) about politics, God, and anything that hits me before I can restrain myself from hitting the “return” button. All of these diverse folks from every part of the globe have come together and shared joys and tragedies with one another because the art of Big Big Train means something more than yesterday’s hit song and today’s “pop sensation.”
I have, of course, thoroughly enjoyed plumbing the very depths of this new album, “English Electric Part One.” Tomorrow (September 3) is its official release day. But, so many pre-ordered copies have been sent out and found their way into the hands of BBT’s many fans that the internet is on fire with discussion of this album. As one good friend said on Twitter, “I thought the best album of the year would be either Rush’s or Marillion’s. After hearing the new BBT, I’m not so sure.”
As I’ve stated on The Imaginative Conservative and elsewhere, I’m overwhelmed by Rush’s “Clockwork Angels” as well, and I’m eager to hear the new Marillion album too. But this—”English Electric Part One”—resides in a whole new level of art and integrity. Indeed, if Rush’s music reflects the moving of the spheres (and it does), it reflects the movement of Mars. But, BBT is something closer and more beautiful. It reflects the moving of Venus.
As I’ve reviewed in depth the first five tracks of the album in other posts, I’ll conclude this series with, naturally, a discussion of the final three tracks. Track 6, “Upton Heath,” co-written by Spawton and Longdon, is by the far most gentle of the tracks. It is the opposite of the driving “Judas Unrepentant.” One might even safely state that “Upton Heath” playfully meanders, offering yet one more view of a mythic, Georgian England, and, yet, it has the magical realism of a Ray Bradbury novel. “Many times I’ve walked alone here/Carried with the breeze.”
Whatever I write about Track 7, “A Boy in Darkness,” will never come close to doing it justice. I have never in my forty-four years encountered a song in the non-classical world with this kind of power. I’ve had the privilege of having a copy of this song for a number of months, and I simply cannot make it through the entire thing without getting deeply emotional. I’ve only had two similar experiences with music before—once while listening to Mozart’s Great Mass in C performed in Innsbruck and once while listening to the full four movements of Beethoven’s 9th symphony at Indiana University, complete with a 500-person choir.
BBT has done every thing right with this track. Though only eight minutes long, it feels as epic as “Close to the Edge” or “The Underfall Yard.” The song—essentially social justice made manifest in music—deals with two boys, one forced to live out his life in the mines of a previous century and another, living in this present world of sorrows. “Once upon a time/A secret shared/Threatened not to breathe a word/To a living soul/Especially mother.” The father of the unnamed boy of the present age is sexually abusing him, a predator among lambs. Through the voice of the boy Longdon so very tastefully, and yet with complete empathy for the survivor, pleads for help to come and to find courage to “speak of the unspeakable.” He prays, so softly, for aid. May it come “not too late.”
And, yet, Longdon does not leave the listener in this heaviest and most oppressive of darknesses. For, he reminds us, we can be willfully ignorant of such horrors or we can engage the evil with the only thing that can ever, fully, and completely triumph: “Don’t be afraid: to shine Light into the dark.” Be not afraid. These words helped bring down tyranny in Poland, and they still resonate generations later.
In contrast to the weight of Track 7, “Hedgerow,” the final track of this masterpiece, is joy incarnate. Beginning with a nod to The Byrds of 1966 and evoking, throughout much of the song, the Beatles of 1969, “Hedgerow” is a glorious evocation of nature and beauty. Purely romantic, it is completely unlike anything BBT has ever done, and, yet, it is perfectly BBT. Vernal variety, not autumnal. Without giving too much away, the last three minutes are the finest conclusion of/to any album produced in the last half century.
My soul sings as this masterpiece ends. And, it ends, not with a question or with angst, but with a man and his dog peering into the highlands of eternity.
Time to hit replay.
As mentioned above, “English Electric Part One” officially comes out tomorrow (September 3), and our contest—the giving away of five signed (by every member of the band!) copies of the new album to our TIC readers—ends. We very much look forward to ”English Electric Part Two.” It will arrive in March, 2013. And, if Spawton, Longdon, and co., don’t mind having a bunch of theological and cultural conservatives in that break-away province known as the United States of America admire and love them, well, God bless them. We do love them. And, TIC is incredibly proud to promote their work.
Further N.B. This is the final post and day for our TIC/BBT contest. Every member of BBT has signed five copies of the new “English Electric Part One,” and we’re giving them away. To be eligible, please comment on any TIC BBT related post, here at TIC or on a TIC/BBT Facebook post. Comment as often as you like! Just make sure we know what your actual email address is. We’ll announce the winners toward the end of this week.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.