Big Big Train – Common Ground track-by-track album review

4 07 2021

Common Ground, the self-produced new album from Big Big Train is released on 30th July 2021, on CD via their own label English Electric Recordings, and on double LP in a gatefold sleeve via Plane Groovy.

Recorded during the worldwide pandemic in 2020, Common Ground 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.

The Strangest Times is a direct reaction to the worldwide pandemic. Referencing some of the strange changes to our lives (waiting for daily Government press conferences, social distancing), this is a new departure for Big Big Train. Instead of the mainly historical stories, this is as close to home and personal as it gets, with lyrics that reference this time in our history, when so many of us were confined to our homes and missing our loved ones and our way of life that we had probably taken for granted.

Six months ago this song would not have worked, as I think a lot of us were looking for an escape from Covid in our everyday lives and our art and entertainment, as it was all too raw, too over-powering and all-encompassing. But how can artists ignore one of the most significant events in our lifetimes, that touched so many of us in such a negative and personal way? As we slowly see chinks of a semblance of normality on the horizon, its now possible to listen to artists addressing what happened, and The Strangest Times touches on what we all went through, the loss and sacrifice many people endured and how our worlds changed, in some ways permanently, whilst looking to nature to heal us and offer respite from the terrible news that was hitting us from all angles.

The track is musically urgent and reminds me of the All The Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes period Pete Townshend (who is referenced as one of the influences, along with Elbow, Tears for Fears, Elton John and XTC on the Big Big Train website).

All The Love We Can Give, with its lower register than usual vocals on the verse, contains my favourite David Longdon performance on the album. The song reminds me a little of Mansun’s playful late 90s album Six, with a variety of twists and turns in an exiting and at times visceral arrangement.

I’m going to get shouted down here, but I keep finding myself singing Kids In America during the first section of Black With Ink. Its probably just me, so ignore me (We’re the kids in America, whoa-oh!). The switching of lead vocals to various band members and the darker mid-section makes this one of the most enjoyable tracks from the early part of the album.

Dandelion Clock is the final track that makes up the first part of the album. Drawing on that wonderful pastoral feeling that Big Big Train can dial in at ease, the song feels like it is bringing the power and beauty of nature into a four minute pop song. And before you know it, Dandelion Clock is over and we are heading into part two of Common Ground.

The short, beautiful instrumental Headwaters is driven by reverb heavy, deep piano and sets the scene for the albums second instrumental, Apollo. This is the most traditionally progressive track on the album, and the nearest in sound to previous Big Big Train recordings on an album that sees the band add new colours and layers to their music.

Common Ground was the first track released from the album and has a mid 70s feel that always draws me in. The vocal harmonies are delicious on this track, with lyrics espousing tolerance, kindness and the life-changing power of love.

“We claim our common ground”

In a slight change of tack, this album has fewer narrative led songs, with more personal experiences driving the themes, which is understandable from an album conceived and created during Covid. Deviating from this journey is the tour de force that is Atlantic Cable, a tale of a 19th Century early communication system. Lyrically the song is about joining together, and breaking down barriers, so a very optimistic take on history.

The arrangement transitions smoothly throughout the 15 minute piece, with male and female vocals interweaving. This is the track I am most looking forward to blasting out on my vinyl copy at the end of July.

“The wisdom of strangers, of those left behind
We look up at the same stars…”

Endnotes is a lovely way to end the album, with what feels like a lyrical and musical tip of the hat to early to mid period Elbow. As a side note, Elbow’s Asleep in the Back is an amazing, very progressive album that does not get the attention it deserves.

The lyrical imagery and use of brass lifts your mood on Endnotes, and overall, whilst it touches on some dark and upsetting themes, Common Ground is an uplifting, emotionally rewarding and positive album, and one of the finest releases from the band.

The performances from all band members are strong on Common Ground, and the new members have certainly left their mark, with an interesting tilt of the band’s axis giving Big Big Train a new determination along with a welcome exploration of new moods and musical flavours. Surely that’s the definition of progressive?

Part One
The Strangest Times
All The Love We Can Give
Black With Ink
Dandelion Clock

Part Two
Headwaters
Apollo
Common Ground
Atlantic Cable
Endnotes

Burning Shed Big Big Train store (incl CD / vinyl and merchandise bundles for Common Ground)

Buy Big Big Train’s Common Ground on CD from Amazon
Buy Big Big Train’s Common Ground on vinyl from Amazon


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