Big Big Train – Welcome to the Planet, January 28, 2022
Tracks: Made From Sunshine (4:05), The Connection Plan (3:55), Lanterna (6:29), Capitoline Venus (2:27), A Room With No Ceiling (4:52), Proper Jack Froster (6:38), Bats in the Belfry (4:54), Oak and Stone (7:12), Welcome to the Planet (6:41)
Perhaps it’s a strange quirk of fate that the album Big Big Train releases after the tragic death of David Longdon is one of their most upbeat albums to date. It’s a very positive album, much like 2021’s Common Ground. Welcome to the Planet sounds even more hopeful, more full of life, and more accessible than ever. It’s a more than welcome antidote to the insanity of the world today – insanity amplified by David’s death.
“Made From Sunshine” is a beautiful opening to the album, giving us a jolt of energy to start us off. It isn’t a Big Big Train anthem like past album openers, but it has a similar upbeat feel. Come to think of it, none of the tracks on this album fall into the anthem category. “Made From Sunshine” is about the joy of parents as they look at their newborn child and enjoy that child’s early years. The name of the song and the accompanying lyric was inspired by guitarist Dave Foster. In a track-by-track overview of the album made in October, David Longdon commented that when he first met Foster in studio in November 2020, he commented to him that he was a ball of energy. Foster told him that his parents told him when he was a child that he was “made from sunshine.” The song features a vocal duet with Longdon and new member Carly Bryant, pointing to new developments in the band as they grow with new musicians in the fold.
Fans of Nick D’Virgilio’s vocals will love “The Connection Plan,” which features him singing both backing vocals and lead on the bridge. I think I can hear Rikard singing on the bridge too, as well as what I assume is Rikard’s Hammond organ swirling around.
“Lanterna” sounds like it could have been on any of the band’s albums with Longdon, or at least any after The Underfall Yard. This song was originally supposed to be part of “Atlantic Cable” on Common Ground, but Greg Spawton decided to split it into a separate track. The song is about an historic lighthouse, with the lyrics about the idea of lighthouses shining light into the dark. It brings in the history element Big Big Train is known for, but it’s more subtle this time around. Rikard has some stellar guitar licks, which really pump the song up starting about two minutes in. Greg’s bass brings a booming deep end over Nick’s drums, with piano and violin periodically popping up. Carly’s piano matches the theme of the song really well.
By now you’ve probably heard “Proper Jack Froster,” which the band released several months ago in advance of Christmas. It has everything Big Big Train is known for. It’s pastoral and nostalgic with a warm feel throughout. Longdon’s vocals are emotional, with his delivery really stealing the spotlight. The vocal harmonies add to the overall mood, but David is the star here. We also get a solo vocal from new band member Carly Bryant, whose warm and bluesy voice fits the song rather well. The guitar work and of course Greg’s bass also get their opportunity to shine. While this might be considered a Christmas song, it isn’t overtly connected to the holiday, meaning it can be listened to all year.
Some might call this album pop, but calling something “pop” has the same problems with calling something “prog.” People never seem to define the word. For a progressive rock band or artist to “go pop,” they have to give up the soul of their sound. Becoming more accessible doesn’t necessarily mean a band is going pop. In that regard, I don’t think Welcome to the Planet is pop at all. It’s pure Big Big Train, with the only track that sounds drastically different being the title track.
By accessible, I mean the songs are all on the shorter side, and they take on a more traditional song format. For the most part, the lyrics depart from the band’s storytelling, but that isn’t new for the band. They’ve written these kinds of songs before, although they’ve never really made a whole album of them. The storytelling is still there, but as I mentioned about “Lanterna,” it is more subtle. I expect Welcome to the Planet will reach a wider audience because in many ways the record sounds more traditional. I don’t think that makes it pop, though.
Just listen to an instrumental like “Bats in the Belfry” and try to tell me that’s pop. D’Virgilio pulled out all the stops in writing this track. It may be short at under five minutes, but it has both slow and quick sections. Greg’s bass is front and center in the mix, as well it should be. Close listeners will pick up on elements that Nick used in his drum solo tracks in their last tour. The album actually features multiple instrumental tracks, so while there may not be any long epics, there’s still a healthy sprinkling of Big Big Train’s proggiest moments.
The album has its more sedate moments, such as “Capitoline Venus” and “A Room With No Ceiling.” The former is a love song Greg wrote for his wife. It originally appeared as a demo in the Passengers Club with Greg on vocals. I remember thinking when they first released it how good of a track it was, and I’m very happy to hear a completed version of it with David on vocals. It’s a smooth, touching track that David’s voice breathes brilliant light into. I actually rather like the raw honesty that Greg’s voice has in the demo, but David had the best voice in the business. Nothing can compare to that. The song features just David on vocals and Greg on acoustic guitar and synths. I can just imagine the rest of the band leaving the stage and the two of them playing this track front and center stage. It would have been beautiful.
“Oak and Stone” is another calmer track dripping with Big Big Train nostalgia. There’s a piano moment that takes me back to “East Coast Racer.” The opening bass to the instrumental “A Room With No Ceiling” is a great reminder that in addition to being the greatest lyricist in prog today, Greg Spawton is also one of the finest bassists out there.
The biggest deviation, or progression, in the Big Big Train sound comes from the title track, placed at the end of the album. “Welcome to the Planet” is Carly Bryant’s debut song for Big Big Train. She wrote both the music and the lyrics, and it’s unlike anything the band has ever made. It’s a great song, but if you’re a longtime fan of the band, it will stand out quite a bit. I don’t know if I would have liked an entire album from Big Big Train made in this style, but it’s a pleasant change that still features the BBT flair, including the brass band. David begins the vocals, but Carly quickly takes over and sings for the rest of the track. She even brings a bit of blues grit in at one point. The smooth section with vocal harmonies singing “welcome to the planet” is a beautiful moment on the album. I think the song would have been better served ending with a fadeout of this rather than the somewhat abrupt ending it has, especially since they chose it to close the album. It’s a bit of an odd ending, with the line “Aunty Carly’s singing lullabies to all the children that she never made,” and ending with Carly sighing. Clearly a personal note, and a bit sad all the same. The lyrics are somewhat dark, but they’re honest, something Big Big Train has always been. In hindsight, with David’s passing, this song might better be served elsewhere on the album, since David takes a back seat on this one. But aside from that, it’s a bold choice for the band to mix up their sound and to end the album with this song. Overall it does work, and I find it ends up being the most memorable song on the album.
The band released this live acoustic duet version with David and Carly yesterday, although the album track has a much fuller sound. If you’d rather go into the song hearing the original first, then watch this after you’ve had a chance to listen to the album.
While overall the album sounds more accessible than Big Big Train’s past records, I find when you break it down song-by-song the tracks could each fit on any of the band’s albums from the last decade, except perhaps the title track, which brings with it the influences and tastes of a new band member. Simply put, Welcome to the Planet is another excellent album by Big Big Train. It has a very different feel from Common Ground, which I think adds to my enjoyment of it. This isn’t just an album of b-sides that didn’t make it onto that record. I like every song on the album, and I know it will make my best-of list come the end of 2022. Whatever the future may hold for Big Big Train, they can be proud of this album.