‘Common Ground’ is the self-produced new album from Big Big Train on their own label, English Electric Recordings. The new album, recorded during the worldwide pandemic, sees the band continue their tradition of dramatic narratives but also tackles issues much closer to home, such as the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band and the hope that springs from a new love.
‘Common Ground’ sees the band taking in wider musical and lyrical inspiration from artists such as Elbow, Pete Townshend, Tears For Fears, Elton John and XTC, as well as acknowledging their more progressive roots.
Following the departure of long time members of the band, the core of Big Big Train is now Greg Spawton (bass), David Longdon (lead vocals, flute), Nick D’Virgilio (drums, vocals) and Rikard Sjöblom (guitars, keyboards, vocals). Carly Bryant (keyboards, guitars, vocals), who contributes vocals to ‘Common Ground’, Dave Foster (guitars), who plays on two tracks on the new album and Clare Lindley (violin, vocals) will join the band for the upcoming tour and there will also be the welcome return of a five piece brass ensemble.
After finishing my first listen through of the new album, my first impressions were that, while it is familiar (especially with David Longdon’s distinctive vocals), there is something new and dynamic about it. Like all the best albums, it needs more investigation and listening to, but, to my ears, a subtle reinventing of Big Big Train is afoot!
So, a few days and many, many listens later, how do I feel about ‘Common Ground’ now? Read on and all shall be revealed…
It’s bloody marvellous, basically! I am a long time fan of the band and this is the first album that has really grabbed me and not let me go since the ‘English Electric’ series.
The wondrously upbeat Strangest Times with its brilliant Elton John inspired piano lines (take a bow Rikard Sjöblom) opens the album in fine style. David Longdon is in fine voice, especially on the ever so catchy chorus, and the guitar playing throughout is sublime, I’m left with a huge grin on my face as the track comes to a satisfying close. The track sees David writing about the Covid lockdowns, the separation of loved ones, the passage of time, deaths of people close to the band “After the death of a collaborator Judy Dyble in July 2020, I time spent shielding with an ill relative. With everything that was happening around me and for the world with the relentless doomwatch tone of the news broadcasts, I spoke with Greg. I said I couldn’t just be writing songs about historical figures and scenarios. I felt that I needed to write about the here and now. In ‘The Strangest Times’.”
All The Love That We Can Give is a more laid back affair with a wistful feel to the keyboards and David’s vocal with a deeper tone. There are swathes of contemplative Hammond Organ and the guitar just sits in the background, like a conductor leading the band. Vocal harmonies abound and Greg and Nick prove what a fantastic rhythm session they are and then the track goes off into proper progressive rock territory, full of energy and intricate musicianship, another rather fine song indeed!
When the intro to Black With Ink starts I’m immediately drawn to a comparison with Kim Wilde’s Kids In America (wait until you hear it, then it won’t sound so daft!). The edgy keyboards and vocals sound like a call to action and the song just picks up and goes from there, it’s certainly up there with the best upbeat songs that the band have ever recorded. The vocal interplay is excellent and gives a real urgency to the track. If this is part of a new direction for the band then please count me in on the journey. To my ears, things get even better in the second half as a distinctive musical refrain starts to be heard (it’s one that continues to surface throughout the rest of the album too…) and becomes an earworm that you can’t get rid of, and don’t want to actually! Dandelion Clock is a nostalgic and thoughtful song that is dear to Greg’s heart a beautifully written piece of music with David’s vocal at its most plaintive and heartfelt. The chorus is a work of art and the whole track just works its way into your affections. A quite exquisite song that leaves you in a totally reflective and introspective state of mind.
Headwaters is the first of two instrumentals and is Big Big Train at their best when it comes to telling stories without words, a dreamlike, meditative piece that is painstakingly and perfectly created, just beautiful. Then we go to the opposite end of the musical spectrum with the vibrant notes of the energetic and dynamic Apollo. Nick D’Virgilio wanted “…to write the band’s version of Genesis’s Los Endos and to make a track that really showed off the talent of all the amazing musicians in the band.” And, boy, he certainly did that and has created one of the best progressive instrumentals of recent times.
The title track of the album sees the band in anthemic mood, Common Ground is a powerful piece of music, a statement of the state of humanity but delivered in a way that only Big Big Train can. Soaring vocal harmonies, powerful melodies and excellent musicianship create a an energetic and passionate song that grabs your attention and makes you listen and absorb the message within. The guitar and violin interplay is absolutely superb, this is a song that will have the audience at the live shows singing their hearts out, just outstanding!
It wouldn’t be a Big Big Train album if there wasn’t an epic song with a dramatic historical narrative that shows British pastoral progressive rock at its very, very best would it? Well, the band don’t let us down and deliver a transcendent fifteen minutes of heart and soul in the majestic Atlantic Cable. There’ll always be a place for tracks like this in the musical universe, soaring crescendos mix with intricate musical passages to create musical works of art that will always pass the test of time. Take songwriters of consummate skill and musicians at the top of their game and you will end up with superb songs of substance and heart and soul that have meaning and that tell the grandest of stories in the perfect manner.
Endnotes closes the album on an emotive note. Another one of Greg’s favourites (and mine), it is a perfectly composed song with heartfelt vocals from David that just bleed compassion and sentiment. The musical accompaniment is exquisitely elegant and the harmonies just make your heart sing and then, the brass! Oh my god, the hairs just stand up on the back of your neck as the notes sound out, there’s just something about that sound that makes my soul soar and Big Bg Train do it so well. What an incredible end to the album, I don’t mind admitting it has made me quite emotional.
So, there you have it, ‘Common Ground’ is recognisably Big Big Train but a Big Big Train that have moved the game on a little and given us an album of its time. Vibrant and upbeat, thoughtful, wistful and even melancholy at times, it is a collection of amazing songs that will touch you on a basic level and move you on many others. ‘Common Ground’ is the album that will make you fall in love with the band all over again and I can’t give it any higher praise than that!
Released 30th July, 2021.
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