On its new album, Grand Tour, Big Big Train considers everything from the NASA ship Voyager‘s leaving the solar system, to the nineteenth-century romantic interpretation of The Tempest, to the meaning of one of the greatest saints of late antiquity, St. Theodora. The album really is about human exploration of self and of world.
There is no such thing as a “mere” release from the Anglo-Scando-American ensemble, Big Big Train. Every release from this most glorious and dynamic of artistic associations is an event, a critical one, helping us gauge our own cultural situation. With each new album from Big Big Train, we can somewhat determine whether we’re progressing toward or regressing from the core of Western Civilization. Hyperbolic? Not in the least. Listening is believing.
On May seventeenth, the band officially releases its latest studio adventure, Grand Tour. The PR information accompanying the advanced and review copies states bluntly: This album “is a celebration of the human experience, of science and art, and of what it means to be alive.” Socrates and Cicero might have simply celebrated it as an exploration of “what it means to be human.” To be fair, though, BBT are progressive rock guys. They like ten words where only one is needed. After all, why not just note that it’s a big train? Nope. For it to be proper and legitimate, it has to be a big big train.
Since the release of the band’s first album—way back in 1994—fountainhead and touchstone, Gregory Spawton, the most English of English gentlemen, has sought nothing less than perfection. Every word, every note, every silence must find its right (and, thus, only) place. Several times, already, Mr. Spawton and company have successfully reached such heights—especially with their 2009 album, The Underfall Yard; their 2012 album, English Electric; Full Power in 2013; and, again, in their two releases of 2017, Grimspound and Second Brightest Star. Other albums, such as 2016’s Folklore, and 2004’s Gathering Speed have touched the spheres, but they came just shy of equality with them. With every album, though, Big Big Train aspires toward perfection, and, even when not quite reaching it, comes so close as to redefine the entire world of popular music. Every album, in one way or another, explores themes of human excellence, human follies, and environmental delimitations. Even when dour, Big Big Train inspires. Truly, if Cicero had made music—in lyric and note—this would’ve been it. It’s music for those majoring in the liberal arts!
So, where does this latest one, Grand Tour, fit into all of this? Well, it soars, to be sure. The entire theme, ostensibly, revolves around the English gentleman’s tours of Europe, so popular in the eighteenth-century. True to form, though, the band uses this theme only as a way to hold the whole album together. The album really is about human exploration of self and of world. It asks us to find our greatest and out-best ourselves. Never does it find or aspire to utopia, though. Rather, in the most proportional and glorious way, it calls to our best while never ignoring our worst.
On the Grand Tour, Big Big Train considers everything from the NASA ship Voyager‘s leaving the solar system, to the nineteenth-century romantic interpretation of The Tempest, to the meaning of one of the greatest saints of late antiquity, St. Theodora.
If all of this sounds too intelligent and too good to be a part of popular culture, it’s because it is! No, no, no. This is not pop. This is art. True, good, real, and beautiful. Imagine, for a moment, how many other manifestations of secular culture take seriously a Christian saint, let alone analyze the very stones used in the art of Byzantium? Truly, what this band offers us is a precious gem. And, while the members of the band (at least as far as I know) are not religious, they certainly take the religion of the past quite seriously. Not just Theodora, but the band has also written gorgeously on its previous releases about St. Edith, the granddaughter of King Alfred, the first great English king, the first to codify Anglo-Saxon common law, and the blessed recipient of Marian visions.
At sixty-five minutes in length, Grand Tour gives us nine tracks. They range in length from a mere two-and-half minutes to three, some of the tracks hovering around the fourteen-minute mark. Even the packaging is something to behold. No mere crystal case (the norm in any store selling CDs) holds this CD. Instead, the CD rests in a tight cardboard sleeve that serves as the final page of a fifty-three-page hardback booklet. As with the group’s previous several albums, the art on this one was done by the fabulous Sarah Ewing. The band not only includes the lyrics for each of its songs, but also includes the equivalent of footnotes or literary archeological unearthing for each of the tracks as well. In these, we learn not just the tastes of the band, but we find out what each member is reading and what matters most to each.
None of this is pretense. Rather, it’s as real and tangible as it gets. As a native Kansan, I’m used to celebrating the good in my neighbor, but much of the rest of the world (at home and abroad) see these natural enthusiasms as weaknesses. If such enthusiasms are weaknesses, then Big Big Train are as weak as they come. Unabashedly, Grand Tour celebrates the mysteries of human existence.
While the band is very clearly a whole—an association, a friendship, a cell—it is also a collection of very talented individuals, each willing to give of himself for his little musical republic. Dave Gregory, formerly of XTC and Tin Spirits, might very well be our greatest living rock guitarist. Nick D’Virgilio—especially since the retirement of Rush’s Neil Peart—might very well be our greatest living drummer. The Elven Rachel Hall brings sheer elegance to her string playing. Danny Manners might very well be one with his keyboard. The lone Viking, Rikard Sjöblom, is a master of keys and guitars. And, when it comes to bass, flute, and lyrics, no one the whole world over is as good as Gregory Spawton and David Longdon. The two are as perfect together as Holmes and Watson, Lewis and Clark, and Yin and Yang. Mr. Longdon’s vocals will always sound a bit like Peter Gabriel’s, but, honestly, Mr. Longdon replaces integrity with Mr. Gabriel’s desire (however legitimate) for stardom. In the end, ironically or not, Mr. Longdon is the better and the greater star.
This review would be incomplete without also mentioning the engineer behind all of this, Rob Aubrey. If there’s a greater audiophile in the world than Mr. Aubrey, he or she has most certainly escaped my notice.
Soon after receiving a review copy of Grand Tour, I asked a friend what he thought of the album, each of us being nearly identical in our religious, political, and artistic tastes. “Brad, there’s nothing quite like listening to ‘Alive’ while walking down the streets of Manhattan.” Though I have no such experience, I know exactly what he means.
If I had any qualms about this album, they would come from my initial surprise that the band chose a European topic rather than a specifically English one. After all, the band has made my always-present Anglo-philia even crazier. Here’s hoping that the next album will be about the English Renaissance rather than the Italian one. An album about Henry, Erasmus, Thomas More, and John Fisher? I am there. Fully and completely.
This album, Grand Tour, as with all other Big Big Train albums, makes me want to be a better person, a better professor, a better writer, a better thinker, a better father, a better husband, a better man. Seriously, if art doesn’t do this for us, what are we wasting our time on?
Ave, Big Big Train!
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