New Model Army -‘Thunder and Consolation.’ (EMI, 1989)
No matter how many times, I hear this album, I never get tired of it. (Just as well, one one occasion driving to a gig, James at the Birmingham NEC in 1998, my taped copy of this album got stuck in the tape player and it was all we had to listen to. Its’ quality meant that did not matter).
New Model Army have attracted some derision over the years, which largely seems down to the fact that some of their followers may have worn clogs. But Justin Sullivan is a fantatsic songwriter, musician and lyricist, and over their thirty year career this is the album that showcases his talents best. They may not have troubled the singles chart in recent years, but they still have a huge follwoing in both the UK and further afield.
I remember seeing New Model Army mentioned in Smash Hits, of all places, about 1989, round about the time that this album came out. However, whilst I became gradually more and more aware of them, it was several years before I taped a copy off a friend and about 1998 before I bought it. By that stage, I had fallen in love with the album, hook, line and sinker.
New Model Army came out of the punk/post-punk scene and based in Bradford as they were – and are – there was a definite sense of being outside the pravailing trends as perpetuated by a media in the UK that remains strongly London-centric. The song ‘Green and Grey’ which is almost heartbreaking in its’ sadness, imagines a letter to a friend who has left these valleys of ‘Green and Grey’. At first, Sullivan’s lyrics explain that the town is still as it was: ‘The pubs are still full on Friday nights/and things get started still.’ Yet there’s a (rather understandable) bitterness directed at the ‘friend’ who has gone to ‘the land of gold and posion/that which beckons to us all.’ It’s not named and shamed as London, but given that the streets of London were legendarily paved with gold (does this steam for the story of Dick Whittington or is this even older?) There are various versions of the song in existence, but the album version has the gorgeous, full introduction.
Ed Alleyne-Johnson’s violin playing adds much to the album – perhaps nowhere more so than on ‘Vagabonds.’ It amused me in later years when I would lend the album to friends who would say ‘It’s quite like the Levellers, isn’t it?’ The plight of new age travellers was being focused on more and more in culture – just as well as they were being demonised spectacularly by the gutter press in the UK, and this was not long after the infamous ‘Battle of the Beanfield’ which had taken place in 1985, itself immortalised by the Levellers. This album predates the Levellers, and whilst I still play early Levellers albums with a feeling of nostalgia, this album has aged well.
When I interviewed Justin Sullivan last month,* I asked him if he thought the world had got any better or worse. He didn’t think it had – though the pre-internet ‘225’ sums up a warning of what would come over the following generation. Its’ damning couplet is ‘Well this golden age of communication means everybody talks at the same time/and liberty just means there’s freedom to exploit any weakness that you can find.’ Then again, the song starts off with ‘She stares at the screen, with its’ little words of green.’ In hose days computer screens really did tend to be black and green…
1989 was a strong year for albums – De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising, Madonna’s Like A Prayer,Disintegration by the Cure and the ubiquitous Pixies’ Doolittle and the eponymous Stone Roses debut, to cherrypick five others. This holds its’ own -perhaps as an album out of time, and yet very much in tune with the world around it. There have been strong New Model Army albums subsequently – Purity, Strange Brotherhood and this year’s Today Is A Good Day, but this remains my favourite of all.
*will finish writing this up soon, promise!