by Nick “Dr. Nick” Efford
If I’m honest, I was harbouring a secret wish for something rather different in tone from EE1: darker and more edgy, perhaps. Clearly, we don’t have that here – but it would be churlish to feel disappointment at getting more of the same, given the sublime nature of EE1. And there’s no doubt that Big Big Train have once again served up some wonderful music for us.
East Coast Racer is a suitably epic album opener that doesn’t quite gel for me yet. There are several parts to it that I really like but I’m struggling to find the thread linking them all together. It is growing on me with repeated listens but is giving up its secrets slowly!
No such issues with Swan Hunter, which is much simpler and more direct. The affection and nostalgia infusing this track makes it a natural companion piece to EE1’s Uncle Jack. The obvious lyrical connection is that both Uncle Jack and Swan Hunter concern members of Dave Longdon’s family, but if you put to one side the lightness of the former and the more stately cadence of the latter then there are also some interesting melodic parallels to be found. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or not, but it added something to the music for me. All in all, a very pleasant piece, although not as memorable as the tracks that follow.
Worked Out is, I think, where this album truly sparks into life. The opening motif is pure pop and sounds like something Mike & The Mechanics might play, with Dave Longdon’s voice uncannily matching the timbre of Paul Carrack’s in places. Then it switches into ‘prog wig-out’ mode, first with a flute-filled passage that would make Jethro Tull proud, then with a driving closing section featuring some brief but very welcome synth soloing. Absolutely splendid stuff.
Leopards is a wonderfully warm and charming slice of pop with an ambience and lightness of touch similar to that of Uncle Jack. The vocal work on the ‘Join the spots’ chorus is delightful and calls to mind XTC. It is a slight but lovely interlude between the more musically ambitious pieces that surround it.
The Permanent Way is a clever reworking of many of the themes found on EE1. It risks losing its own distinctive identity in the process, but there’s just enough that’s new here for it to avoid doing so. I find this a rather beautiful and poignant piece; in fact, that delicate opening of interwoven piano and recorder is enough to put a lump in my throat. The lyrics celebrate those who work the land, those “inland navigators reaching for far skies”, yet the music feels like it is mourning a lost way of life. That sense of loss makes this an emotional and musical highlight of the album for me.
If The Permanent Way puts a lump in the throat, then Curator Of Butterflies puts a tear in the eye, for sure. It’s an achingly beautiful and utterly sublime song that, possibly more than any of the others across the two discs of English Electric, signals just how far this band have come since The Underfall Yard. Sure, they remain a prog act whose ancestry can be traced back to the likes of Genesis, Jethro Tull and Yes in all their 70s pomp, but they are also something else: creators of beautiful, timeless, well-crafted songs that transcend genres.
If someone like Elton John had released Curator, he would no doubt have another hit record on his hands. But a ‘prog’ band wrote it instead, so it is doomed to be heard by only a tiny fraction of the audience who would appreciate and value its beauty. The way that music is continually ghettoised by arbitrary genre labelling is depressing, frankly.
In summary, there’s a great deal to admire in EE2. The music is wonderful, although I don’t think it quite sustains the high levels of excellence achieved by its predecessor. Part of the magic of EE1 for me is the way in which all the songs fit together so naturally. EE1 has an ease and a sense of flow to it, a degree of coherence and consistency that EE2 is unable to match. Despite this, EE2 is still a hugely enjoyable album and a very worthy successor to EE1.
Finally, the artwork deserves a special mention. The photographs of rust and decay are a magnificent and highly evocative accompaniment to the lyrics.