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I Have Counted Every One
Big Country: Why the Long Face?
You know how in movies or videos sometimes they fly the camera around a character, so it seems like the whole world is spinning, with them at the center? Have you ever felt like that's happening, like that camera is whirling around you? Something happens that makes you think the fabric of the universe is reorienting itself around this instant and position. For a moment the eyes of a yearning world are upon you, and your most deeply held beliefs are suddenly cinematic triumphs, your grandest aspirations brandished aloft as talismans of courage.
If you were watching the last time this happened to me, you saw me sitting in my chair, at my desk, in my office, at work. (How the camera did its flyby there without smashing into the walls I'm not sure.) The mail guy's footsteps were probably still audible, receding from my doorway. In front of me, on the desk, was a cardboard mailer, just opened. In my hands, just freed from the importer's package, was Why the Long Face?, the new album by Big Country, my favorite band in the entire world. The CD player that sits on my desk was, as of yet, still empty and silent.
Do you have these moments? Is there any band you care about so deeply that holding a new release of theirs in your hands is almost unbearably intense? Your mind struggles to apprehend the sudden expansion in the body of work that until a second before you knew in fanatical totality, for a moment relishing the anticipation almost too much to actually put the disc in? Is there any band you feel such connection to that the question of whether you will like the new record is as utterly irrelevant as it would be to have Siskel and Ebert rate a visit from your best friend? I hope so.
Big Country has been my favorite band for about twelve years now. You should probably pay no attention to whether I like this album or not. I love it. I love it like breathing, like the second you realize you just changed somebody's life, like waking up from a dream in which you were dying, and realizing that not only are you alive, but it's the weekend. You should probably pay no attention to this. The fact that I'm sitting here listening to this album for the ninth time in two days; that this evening it single-handedly pulled me from lonely and unsettled to nearly ecstatic; the way these songs are already weaving themselves inextricably into my understanding of my own life; the manic glee with which they make me leap up from this computer, my desk chair firing back across the narrow room into the stack of copies of my book, which would represent the most coverage ever given to Big Country in a published music guide, if only it were published -- all these things you would be totally justified in discounting.
On the other hand, being biased doesn't mean I'm not right. Big Country has earned and re-earned my devotion several times over, so maybe you're really missing out. It's not like I don't give hundreds of bands the chance to supplant them in my affections every year. It's not like I'm locked in a room listening to nothing else. Well, I mean usually I'm not, other than the last two days. Okay, three.
Anyway, in the world outside my head, the one where Big Country aren't already essentially immortal, they're in the midst of an extended comeback of sorts. 1988's Peace in Our Time, a hypnotically beautiful album that I have come to embrace wholeheartedly, was nonetheless a dramatic stylistic change for a band better known in the US for a video in which they wore sleeveless flannel shirts and rode ATVs over a bleak Scottish countryside, and its slick production and open, synthesizer-augmented arrangements sat uncomfortably with fans who preferred driving dual guitars and the occasional bagpipe impersonation. The following UK-only fifth album, 1991's No Place Like Home, found the band producing good music, but at a loss for a coherent unifying style. Drummer Mark Brzezicki played on the album, but as a session player only, not a member of the band. By the next album, 1993's The Buffalo Skinners, he was even gone from that role, and Simon Phillips filled in for the recording. Ironically, though, this album turned out to be a vigorous return to form despite Mark's absence. Self-produced, The Buffalo Skinners struck me as the album that years of self-produced b-sides had hinted at, the album that finally found the band sounding like they'd wanted to sound all along. Loud and angry, it is Big Country's rock record, and, naturally, one of my very favorite albums.
Mark had some sort of personal revelation around the time of The Buffalo Skinners' release, and by the time the band's tour began he was back. I got to see them twice on that tour, once to a packed house in London, and once to a bemused afternoon crowd clustered around a man-made lagoon behind a shopping mall here, the band valiantly attempting to pretend that the boat upon which they were marooned was really a proper stage (the mall's dubious idea of a venue, not the band's). Despite the setting, they rocked, and they looked happy. It was very encouraging.
If The Buffalo Skinners was Big Country's rock album, then Why the Long Face? is their cheerful pop album. The strangeness of there being a cheerful Big Country album at all should not be overlooked. As uplifting as I find all their songs, the emotional tableaux of the first six albums cover a pretty narrow range between despair, defiance and anger, with little that could be considered even slightly frivolous. And despite the trademark Celtic hooks in "In a Big Country" and "Fields of Fire", most of the material on the first three albums is pretty dense, musically. The songs on Why the Long Face?, by contrast, are affectionate, accepting, calm, bouncy, protective, trusting, whimsical, wistful, hopeful, compassionate, silly, resigned and, just to remind you that they're capable of it, occasionally angry. Musically, these songs are simpler on the whole than much of the band's earlier work (there are no multi-part epics like "Porrohman" or "The Red Fox" here), and reverse The Buffalo Skinners' slight emphasis of aggression over melody. The Celtic guitar lines are back in as much force as they've been since The Crossing, and there's even a country inflection to a few bits, left over from the days of Peace in Our Time and No Place Like Home. It's still Big Country, of course, so everything has the unavoidable Highland ring of anthemic integrity, but for the first time it sounds like the band may be treating their music as a spectator sport, as well as a call to arms. It's a charming and vital combination, though personally, I'm going to fight for them no matter how they ask.
The album opens at an easy mid-tempo, with the Egypto-Celtic lead hooks of "You Dreamer". The band's musical health and evolved attitude are both immediately apparent. Mark's drums are steady and seemingly uncomplicated, but listening closely reveals some tricky hi-hat syncopation. Stuart and Bruce's guitars dual with their trademark sinuousness, over Tony Butler's solid bass lines. Tony and Mark support Stuart's singing with high tight-sync harmonies that hide behind his voice, and often sound more like some extra harmonics that his throat has somehow produced than like additional singers. The lyrics return to a theme visited previously on The Buffalo Skinners' "What Are You Working For", but instead of focusing in enraged frustration on global chaos, "You Dreamer" finds a single old man, sitting the back room of a slow corner store.Where it might have been a vindictive anthem for people beaten down, this is a warm portrait of someone who has simply ended up normal. In one sense the song is a prodding reminder that he once had bigger dreams, but rather than letting the fact that those dreams didn't pan out crush the life that did transpire, it remembers them with a combination of nostalgia for days when dreams seemed possible, and admiration for the fact that somebody this normal ever had big dreams, to begin with. "Not even Indiana Jones could deal with that."
The pace picks up a little for "Message of Love", an edgy trip through post-reunification Berlin, whose fiery verses, and half-step-modulation guitars, at least, sound more like The Buffalo Skinners than most of the rest of this album. The chorus, though, launches into an impassioned plea for emotional reassurance mounted on a hook the size of Texas. It's not really clear to me whom Stuart's supplication is intended to be addressed to, but the obvious ambivalence about Berlin's fate leads me to superimpose upon this song one that I started to write myself years ago, before the Wall actually came down, about what happens after its fall to an East German border guard who actually believed in communism's ideals. He stands at the dismantled checkpoint, seeing capitalism ascendant on one side, and decades of tyrannical bureaucrats who sabotaged his political dream on the other, and realizes that there's nowhere left for him to go. The Communists, in name, ruined communism, in spirit. In this context, then, asking for a message of love makes a regrettable amount of sense. The triumph of the West is a brash, selfish, materialistic thing. It's hard to imagine where Radio Free Humans will broadcast from in the new world. (Although, to be fair, where did it ever broadcast from?)
"I'm Not Ashamed", next, is the album's lead UK single. I suppose we could argue about whether some other track would have been better suited to some particular goal, like breaking through in the US, or dispelling lingering Big Country stereotypes, but I'm inclined not to. To me, "I'm Not Ashamed" is an appropriate introduction in much the same way that "Alone" was for The Buffalo Skinners. It's got big, driving guitars and a good solid chorus, and it reflects the predominant mood of the album. The text can be taken either personally, which is how it was probably meant, or as a non-apology that represents the band itself, in which case it echoes nicely Stuart's comment, in the liner notes to No Place Like Home, "There's no master plan. This is what we do now." Part of the reason I love Big Country, and part of why I feel the need to champion them, is that they do not inhabit any particular extreme. Bands that are the most something all tend to find critical support somewhere, but art that doesn't happen to push against any borders too often gets overlooked. Some of you probably read that sentence and started to mentally compose the corrective email to me about how art must be radical to be great. Go ahead and send it. Then go have a grilled cheese sandwich. Then compose your retraction.
"Sail Into Nothing" revisits a recurrent Adamson lyrical thread -- seas, ships and sailing -- woven through a great many Big Country songs, beginning on The Crossing with the shattering waves at the end of "Harvest Home" and the waiting lovers of "Close Action". It continues on Steeltown in the box shipped home in "Where the Rose is Sown" and then the obsessive separation of "Tall Ships Go", the first whole song based on the motif. The Seer finds an empty beach in "Hold the Heart", and, in "Sailors", the first concerted attempt to leave the sea behind ("I will always be silent / And hold my head up, / And we will be Sailors no more."). Peace in Our Time offers only the inland variant "River of Hope", but No Place Like Home returns to the subject in earnest, with a stormy sea in "Leap of Faith" and the edge of the world in "Comes a Time" leading to "Ships" itself, which finds the sailor returning, only to both find nobody waiting, and crash. The Buffalo Skinners reprises "Ships", and adds "Seven Waves", in which there are no ships to be found, but love remains "waves away" even in their absence. (And that's not even getting into b-sides "Flag of Nations (Swimming)", "Not Waving But Drowning", and "On the Shore".) All this context then, all these pained relationship dramas adrift on dangerous waters in imperiled vessels, informs the simple chorus lines "We sail into nothing / And never need these ships again", and makes it a useful, if obscure, encapsulation of the album's emotional calm and resolve.
The quiet of "Sail Into Nothing" turns suddenly boisterous for "Thunder and Lightning", whose good-natured chorus borders engagingly on unselfconscious rock and roll silliness. This leads quickly to the lithe snap of "Send You", which finds Stuart dueting with an infectious guitar hook whose seamless integration to me is a counter-lesson for every guitarist whose egotistical idea of what lead guitar involves stopped evolving with "Sweet Child O' Mine".
The unmistakable mournful sound of E-bow introduces "One in a Million" as a classic Big Country ballad. It pans out as more acoustic than slow, actually, with Mark contributing some chorus bongo drumming that I take as an allusion to the acoustic first half of last year's live album, Without the Aid of a Safety Net. The unabashed romantic detail of melting "just like strawberry ice" seems perfect to me here, a succinct evocation of something you're nostalgic for despite its inherent evanescence.
The charged anger of The Buffalo Skinners makes one more appearance, in "God's Great Mistake", which I take as a sequel to "Long Way Home", as much for the overall vitriol and the rumbling bass in the sawing chorus as for the line here that says "We get home if we can". As with "All Go Together" on the last album, in some moods this song has just a little too much lyric repetition in the choruses for me, so I guess if I were forced to pick a least favorite song here, this would be it. The fact that it's relatively out of character for this album makes it either an even better choice for omission, or a more necessary inclusion, depending on your outlook.
I have no such ambivalence about "Wildland in my Heart", which is currently vying with "Far from Me to You" for my favorite song on the album. The way the pain of the woman returned to find her absence unnoted, in the first verse, modulates through Lassie getting loose and coming home to find no phone messages, in the second, and the Magnificent Seven returning to popular indifference in the third, ending with the patently goofy fourth verse ("The ranger is finally on his own; / Tonto got married and went home. / That's how it is when your first name's 'Lone'."), shows an actual sense of humor, which previously Stuart has more usually taken pains to keep out of his songwriting ("Republican Party Reptile" being, of course, the notable partial exception). The juxtaposition of this with the more in-character yearning for lost enthusiasm makes this a much less discouraging song than, say, "Chance"'s "Oh Lord, where did the feeling go? Oh Lord, I never felt so low."
"Take You to the Moon", with its country-esque slide guitar, strikes me a little bit like an uptempo reworking of "Just a Shadow". I'm particularly intrigued by the opening image of driving home at 3am, listening to the radio, as it reminds me instantly of Runrig's "Headlights", and somewhat more tenuously (not alone, no radio) of Del Amitri's "Driving with the Brakes On", two other noteworthy night-driving songs of Scottish origin.
Then we're at my favorite, the measured, pulsing "Far from Me to You", a song I like not only because it sounds good, but because I identify with it totally. I take it to be about the loneliness of the artist, and while I haven't necessarily earned the right to picture myself in this plight, I do write songs, and this is what they always seem to turn out to be about. Of course, if I'd written this song it would have eight times as many words and be riddled with strange technology references, and I'd blow both the timing and wording of at least a quarter of the lines when I sang them. And, mercifully, most of you would never hear it.
In a sort of half-stop, we then reach "Charlotte". Whether people less obsessively familiar with Big Country will react the same way I do to it I'm not sure, but to me it's a very unusual song for the band, the insertion of some solo guitar using their patented harmonizer settings notwithstanding. The musical structure is extraordinarily controlled and regular, bringing to my mind the old b-side "Winter Sky", another song that I experience as outside of Big Country's usual sphere. The text, which finds a rejected lover seeking solace in dessert binges, is also not at all in Stuart's traditional mode. I find the combination really mesmerizing, though, and I almost wonder whether I'd make this the next single, if I were in charge.
If this album were a concert, that would be the end of the main set. The encore would then begin with the acoustic folk-blues of the joke-song "Post-Nuclear Talking Blues", an overtly slight novelty experiment that feels very much to me like the band has sauntered back onto the stage with towels draped around their necks, and want to relax and goof off for a number before they dig in and close out the show with something appropriately vigorous. That climax, then, is "Blue on a Green Planet", and as the drums gallop into the chorus, guitars reeling around the invitingly sing-along tag line, I'm caught up, everything coming together with irresistible jubilance. The song's disintegrated relationship is undeniably unfortunate, but the planet is green, and that's enough hope for me. I dance, I sing along, I'm happy. I hit Repeat.
Why the Long Face? is the new album by Big Country. Big Country is my favorite band. This may be their best album. So may the others. Do with this information what you will.
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