by Bradley J. Birzer
In the last of his Four Quartets, “Little Gidding”–arguably the finest work of art to emerge in the twentieth century–the Anglo-American poet, T.S. Eliot, offered the following:
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling.
Eliot’s poem has been described by his best critics as an examination of the world from within a mystery. That is, the reader approaches the world from the interior of the mystery itself.
As I fall into the England that Spawton describes in “Winchester from St. Giles’ Hill,” I have entered into the profundity and tranquility that is Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”
This is the voice of the calling.
The third track of Big Big Train’s latest album, English Electric Part One (out, September 3), is epic, but, more importantly, it is dignified.
Lyrically, this track is the successor to last summer’s single release, “Kingmaker.” Or, more properly, it might be both the precursor and the successor to that single. In “Kingmaker,” we walk with St. Edith. In Winchester, we stand with King Alfred. “Look to the west. Alfred had me made (or made me again).”
One of the most glorious aspects of progressive rock is the organic unfolding of the story not only lyrically but also musically. There is, of course, a range to this even within the greater prog world. Canadian Neil Peart’s lyrics are never encumbered with symbolic meaning, for example, and we love him for it. He is, essentially, the Ernest Hemingway of the prog world. He states a thing simply, and we either agree or disagree. I, for one, love him for it.
But, with the lyrics of Spawton and Longdon, we much more closely approach a romantic Burke or a classical Eliot. The story must be discovered and savored; it is a thing of delicate strength.
On, “Winchester,” Longdon’s voice has never sounded better, and even his flute playing has a vocal lilt to it. Musically, the song begins gently and builds. At roughly the 3 minute mark, the band as well as the listeners have entered into a veritable, earthly paradise. The keyboards, I’m tempted to write with a certain definitiveness, are astounding. This is true, but I could certainly write the exact same thing about every instrument and part being played here. After multiple listenings, I’m reminded of how well this band works as a unit. These are not brilliant men competing with one another in a show of teenage bravado, these are men so comfortable with themselves that they can use their many talents to make every other member of the band even better. The seek to leaven, not conform.
In a very real way, “Winchester” is England, and England is now. With this album, we have entered myth as well as the secluded chapel.
After “Winchester” comes cleverly intense track, almost Chestertonian in its playfulness, “Judas Unrepentant.” The highest praise I can give this energetic song is that my 14-month old daughter, Veronica Rose, dances wildly to it every time it comes on, and she is fiercely armed with a grin throughout her various gyrations. While she has been exposed prog almost exclusively from her first moments in the womb, she comes by her love of things mythical honestly. From her mother’s Scandinavian side, she has Elvish blood. On her father’s maternal side, she has more than a bit of the fay in her.
“Judas,” with its meticulous drumming, keyboards, and strange time signatures moves her at her deepest level, as it does her father. That Longdon takes the side–at least seemingly–of a master forger only makes the song more interesting, giving the seven-plus minute track a mischievous quality.
There’s also a wonderful bit in the middle, when Dave Gregory says with what can only be called a diffident officiousness, “All rise.”
The fifth track–the middle of the album–is “Summoned by the Bells,” another Spawton track. After the relentless energy of “Judas,” this track seems satisfyingly bucolic and Georgian on the first listen. It becomes blatantly obvious after several listens that this track might be the most interesting track of the album in terms of the intersection of music and lyrics.
BBT has always excelled at this, but “Summoned” seems to take that happy confluence to an even higher point than on previous albums.
The railroad yard has fallen into despair, but the boy–presumably Spawton himself–has returned to them. There, following the love of his grandfather, he sees what allowed the building of industrial Britain. In his remembrance, he also understands that boyhood involved through church, school, and factory the rough and tumble, a violent respect for one another–”scrapes and fights, as part of the deal”–a seemingly oxymoronic but effective building of community, as each person matures and interacts, steel sharpening steel.
If “Winchester” embraces the impressionist jazz of Coltrane and Davis, “Summoned” calls forth the sanction of the fates–”those were the days of our younger lives”–as well as the noir jazz of the 1940s, culminating in a frenzy of activity, a drive toward the infinite in drum, keyboards, guitars, brass, and vocals. The brass toward the end of “Summoned” is especially striking. Musically and lyrically, infinite regret makes an appearance, but, more importantly, so does resignation. Spawton gives us not the resignation of the damned, but the Stoic resignation of those who understand that suffering is simply a part of this world of sorrows. Regretful, but unavoidable.
If you’ve made it this far in this post, let me just stress, this is an album for every lover of progressive rock, rock, or music in general. Let me be blunt–if you have not preordered this album, you should. There is so much delicacy and beauty in this release that it could never be captured fully by the words of a reviewer or a fanboy.
I was, admittedly, disappointed that PROG decided to place Marillion on the cover of its most recent issue. I write this as a dedicated fan for well over two decades of that band. I have everything Marillion has produced, with a special love of “Afraid of Sunlight,” an album that helped me survive the death of a daughter and work through the inconceivable despair of losing a child. But, my guess is that the editors of PROG, ten years from now, will regret their decision. Marillion is excellent, and I have no doubt that the new album is something special. But, the new release from Big Big Train is something well beyond the best of prog. It is prog, but it is also, plainly put, prog at its absolute best. It is music at its best. It is art at its best. It is, simply put, beauty at its best. A decade from now, the editors of PROG will lament their decision of 2012. They will realize they could’ve featured not just a great release, but perhaps the definitive rock release of our era.
I do not exaggerate (though I’m quite capable of doing so) when I write, this is not only the best release of a prog album since “Spirit of Eden” in 1988, it is a great, great work of art. It is the “Selling England by the Pound” of our generation.
The album as a whole beckons us to enter into an English mythos. Though I’ve yet to describe the final three songs of English Electric Part One, I can assure the reader that the listener ends not somewhere in England, but somewhere on the edge of eternity itself, peering into its wonders. Best of all, he finds himself there not alone, but with his faithful canine companion. Each of us lingers, close to the edge, full of purpose and almost completed happiness.
But, an explanation of this remains for our next post, to appear on September 2.
Spawton, Longdon, and Co. have proven that England is truly here and now.
TIC is proud to embrace and promote the art of Big Big Train, a band that believes in making beautiful things. They are not only fine musicians, but they are also very fine men. They have decided to bypass the corporate world of conformist, profit-driven drivel and cookie-cutter music. As creative artists and entrepreneurs, they can only do this with the support of their listeners. Please support them by purchasing their CDs or legally downloading their music. All of BBT’s music is available from their own website.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.