Big Big Train and The Decemberists
(from The Underfall Yard, 2009)
Few countries live and breathe inside music as much as England does. As the starting place for progressive rock, the nation has birthed many of the genre’s most important acts, including Soft Machine, Pink Floyd, and Renaissance. Many of these acts incorporate social commentary about their homeland into their music, with (The Wallbeing the most famous example); however, perhaps none have sounded as quintessentially English as Big Big Train. Often (and somewhat justly) compared to early ‘70s Genesis, their melodies, timbres, songwriting, and arrangements are as warm, royal, and involving as anything else in the music industry today. In fact, their newer sound is significantly more lavish, grand, intricate, and powerful than their older one, and this change in direction was first unveiled on 2009’s The Underfall Yard. Of all the wonderful pieces contained on the record, album closer “The Underfall Yard” reigns supreme in terms of scale, length, and reward. It’s easily on par with any other epic in the field.
Really, The Underfall Yard represents an entirely new chapter in Big Big Train’s legacy. Besides their sonic evolution, Big Big Train also had two significant line-up changes here. Newcomer David Longdon replaced longtime singer Sean Filkins, complementing the increasingly orchestral and luscious music with his equally bold and charming voice. Likewise, it marks the inclusion of drummer Nick D’Virgilio as an official member (two years later, he would depart from his original band, Spock’s Beard, to focus on Big Big Train). Oddly enough, guest musician David Gregory (XTC) wouldn’t become a full member until the next release, English Electric, Part One.
As for the narrative, like a lot of Big Big Train’s material, it was inspired by British history and real-life circumstance. Longdon explains,
[The] track is primarily about the great Victorian engineers and navies who made the canals and railways that linked far-flung areas of Britain. They symbolized an age of reason and Greg [Spawton] was comparing the achievements of that age with some of the unreasonable things that happen today. It’s not just nostalgia, though; we are well aware of the progress that has been made in recent decades.
“The Underfall Yard” begins with interlocking guitar arpeggios, a thick bass line, and steadfast syncopation. Guitar lines soar and subtle horns perk up over everything. Longdon’s tense verse and majestic chorus (complete with golden harmonies) complete the magnificent mix, proving that he’s among the best singers around today. Interestingly, he foreshadows the title of the succeeding EP in his lyrics. After intense guitar and keyboard solos, Longdon introduces an even lovelier and gentler contribution; in fact, it’s probably one of the nicest melodies I’ve ever heard, and the way the flute dances around it is sublime. Eventually he belts out the same bit, which cues more intense music, followed by several minutes of breathtaking instrumentation that becomes slightly melancholic and sharp around the 20-minute mark. Naturally, it resorts back to its beginning as it fades out, and it even recalls album opener “Evening Star” in the process. The precise way Big Big Train does this is remarkable; it’s a glorious crescendo, to say the least.
While Big Big Train has probably bested The Underfall Yard as a whole with their recent English Electric albums, they’ve yet to release a track that triumphs “The Underfall Yard” (only “East Coast Racer” comes close). It’s a blissful yet critical narrative packed with gorgeous melodies, impeccable playing, and boisterous singing. Big Big Train has forever cemented itself alongside the best of the best in the genre, and this track represents the start of the group’s peak.
(from The Crane Wife, 2006)
If you asked any Decemberists fan about the group, he or she would most likely describe them as a pop/folk outfit that conveys the romantic and tragic lyricism of classic literature. While this is a fair assessment for sure, it disregards a crucial element of their make-up—progressive rock. Okay, so not everypiece of theirs veers into that spectrum, but a few, like their early 18-minute, five-part classic “The Tain”, and parts of their 2009 masterpiece The Hazards of Love, certainly do in terms of range, duration, and story. Anyone who’s heard these pieces can recognize the concrete influence of ‘70s prog/folk pioneers like Steeleye Span, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and of course, Jethro Tull. At times, they proudly venture into complex and colorful extravagance, and while the aforementioned examples work well, The Decemberists have never done it better than on “The Island”, the second track from their fourth LP, The Crane Wife. Divided into three distinct parts, it’s catchy and catastrophic storytelling is brought to life through exuberant and elaborate arrangements, making it a thoroughly gripping listen.
Lyrically, “The Island” is another fine example of singer/songwriter Colin Meloy’s fascination with the sea, drowning, ill-fated love, and betrayal (if he weren’t a musician with a very distinctive voice, he’d make a great English teacher). Some theorize that it’s based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, while others find that it references “Whiskey in a Jar”, an old Irish folk song. In any case, it’s skillfully emotive and engaging; you’d be hard pressed to find a more riveting and striving track in their discography. Despite the fact that it’s only 12 and a half minutes in length, “The Island” is as epic and attentively composed as anything else on this list.
The song is broken into three subsections—“Come and See”, “The Landlord’s Daughter”, and “You’ll Not Feel the Drowning”. It opens with feedback that evolves into a marching beat accompanied by folksy acoustic guitar chords, dissonant strings, and Celtic timbres. In addition, there are several subtle sound effects that make it feel like a sea shanty from centuries prior; also, the percussion sounds like a giant trudging through a forest. It’s the perfect instrumental introduction for a grand tale. Meloy then takes over with his guitar and voice, singing about the explorers on the mysterious island who will “not go home again”. His chorus, matched by expressive drumming, is superb.
A brilliant keyboard arpeggio (that would’ve fit perfectly on A Passion Play) transitions into the middle chapter, which is where the prog rock theatrics really shine. It’s mimicked by acoustic guitar, creating a compelling duality. The other instruments crash around this central pattern as Meloy’s sings about “[producing] my pistol, then my saber” to capture the landlord’s daughter. He sounds like a brash madman, which is quite effective, as is the chaotic and hypnotic music that surrounds him. It dissolves into a simple arpeggio and sorrowful melody, representing the aftermath (in which the daughter is drowned). A poet at heart, Meloy is a master at crafting simple yet devastating stanzas, and the closing words of “The Island” are a perfect example of it. There’s regret in his voice as he sings,
Forget you once had sweethearts
They’ve forgotten you
Think you not on parents
They’ve forgotten too
Go to sleep now little ugly
Go to sleep now you little fool
Forty-winking in the belfry
You’ll not feel the drowning
You’ll not feel the drowning
“The Island” is the single best example of what makes the Decemberists so idiosyncratic and important—everything. Meloy’s songwriting and singing are wholly characteristic, as he crafts narratives and melodies like no one else. Similarly, the rest of the band provides ideal support, generating music that’s at once serene and substantial. While they’re structures are usually dense yet straightforward, atypical tracks like “The Island” prove that they can pile on the intricacy and histrionics when they so desire. You’d be a fool to discredit their musicianship and compositional skills after hearing it.