It is a useless question but one that is nonetheless almost impossible not to ask. Were would Big Country be today if Stuart Adamson were still alive? They would probably be years into a successful reunion, playing sellout shows at decent-sized venues and basking in the same critical reappraisal that has met many of their ’80s and ’90s contemporaries. They might even have released one or two critically-acclaimed, “return-to-form” comeback albums by now.
Instead, since bandleader Adamson’s suicide in 2001, the Scottish act has struggled along with various original members and varying degrees of success and credibility. They still tour, and in 2013 they released a relatively respectable album with the Alarm’s Mike Peters trying to fill Adamson’s shoes. But now they are a nostalgia act, trading on a name and existing only because a small but dedicated hardcore fanbase allows them to.
That fanbase is the easy target for this deluxe reissue of Why the Long Face. Who else would be driven to shell out even the reasonable price for an exhaustive, four-disc edition of an album that was middling when it was first released in 1995 and hasn’t improved with age?
The album found Big Country near the end of a decade-long struggle to reassert and redefine themselves following the phenomenal success of their initial, mid-’80s run. Feeling pigeonholed by their Celtic-flavored, wide-eyed guitar sound and over-pressured by their label and management for American success, they never really found a suitable new way forward. Their 1993 album The Buffalo Skinners found limited success and was celebrated by fans because it wasn’t as disappointing as its immediate predecessors.
But The Buffalo Skinners ultimately presented Big Country as merely another rock band in a market full of them, a market that was beginning to eschew mainstream pop-rock in favor of grunge, Britpop, and electronica. In turn, Why the Long Face had something of a defeatist aura about it from the very beginning, from its title to the fact it was rejected by the band’s label, who promptly dropped them. They were picked up by a new label, who then issued the album.
The 14 songs that make up the album proper are played enthusiastically, buoyed as ever by Adamson’s charismatic, ultra-sincere delivery and the band’s awesome talent as musicians. There are plenty of riffs and plenty of hooks too. But almost all of it goes by without consequence. The hooks and arrangements sound too much like ones from earlier, better Big Country songs. The mystical, Celtic angle was polarizing, but it also gave the band a firm identity, and it is almost entirely missing from Why the Long Face. Instead, Big Country come across like Living Colour on chunky rock numbers like “I’m Not Ashamed” and “God’s Great Mistake”, while “Send You” and “Far From Me to You” are strangely reminiscent of the clean, radio-friendly hard rock Rush were making (and making much better) at the time. There are also some nondescript, midtempo ballads that are easy to listen to and easier to forget.
Why the Long Face does have some songs that surely gave fans hope at the time. “You Dreamer” has a strong enough chorus to make it stand out, and actually sounds like that elusive radio hit, even though it wasn’t. “Take You to the Moon”, with its weepy “B-Bender” guitar, tries on a country-western influence, and wins – even though the chorus pilfers earlier hit “Look Away”. “Post Nuclear Talking Blues” is a lively skiffle number, while “Blue on a Green Planet” is the one rocker that works up enough steam to approach the power Big Country were capable of generating.
Adamson’s lyrics had turned to more literal-minded social commentary and relationship fare, with mixed results. On “You Dreamer” he asks, “Is this the better world that you were making all those plans for”, a question that is just as pertinent a quarter century later. But on the unfortunate “Charlotte” he laments a struggling housewife with clunkers like “Another slice of chocolate cake / Helps to ease the pain.”
The three extra discs feature all sorts of b-sides, demos, and live tracks, with the previously out-of-print live/unplugged Eclectic album as a true selling point. In a lax, friendly atmosphere, the band go through a set of originals as well as lively covers of Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, and others. Eclectic and acoustic-themed b-sides like the lovely “Magic in Your Eyes” hint at a direction Adamson, who had relocated to Nashville, would later pursue in his Raphaels project. Together with the clutch of heavy, sludgy home demos and the killer cover of Canned Heat’s “On the Road Again”, they lead to the conclusion that Adamson and Big Country were hemmed in both by their prior success and the need to replicate it.
Ultimately, they never escaped. If there is anything to be said for this revisiting of Why the Long Face, it’s that the struggle was unquestionably real.