New Model Army: Great Expectations: The Singles Collection
It must be hard to stand up and consider yourself something special under the grey skies of industrial Northern England. It must take some particular character to raise up to one's full height -- despite the unemployment, despite the lack of opportunity -- and speak biblically of "Vengeance", and of "No Rest" for the wicked. It must, quite simply, be war all the time.
Bradford's longtime contribution to punk history, New Model Army, has built a career on documenting that quiet war: the one fought by office gals toiling the day away just to get pissed at the club Friday night, and by the questioning youths battered by misguided hooligans in back alleys, and by the narrow-eyed grumblers in the pub corner. But singer and songwriter Justin Sullivan -- or, as he unfortunately once decided to be called, "Slade the Leveller" -- doesn't just document. Side by side with telling the tale have always come anthems for those Jacks and Jills to sing while fighting for something better, some tiny scrap of culture or comfort. And that's why New Model Army has always appealed to low-life fighters and regular-guy rebels in a way that makes the band's supporters more cult-like than even some of punk's biggest names. It's also what makes this collection of singles so compelling: Because New Model Army's great songs have been so powerful, and the band's lesser work so mediocre, a collection isn't just an introduction; for many it's the be-all and end-all of one of punk's greatest survivors.
What Justin Sullivan does so brilliantly is take punk's cathartic energy, often simply a howl of anger, and channel it through the English ranting rebel tradition of Luddites and Levellers that he invokes so frequently. The results are often pretentious and self-righteous, sometimes downright arrogant, and, in many cases on Great Expectations, the stuff of fist-in-the-air perfection. Take "Vagabonds", with its folksy fiddle lines and militant snare drum: "We are old, we are young / We are in this together / Vagabonds and children / Prisoners forever". Or "51st State", a condemnation of British government's lap-dogging to America that might've been written last year rather than in 1986.
New Model Army began in the early 1980s as a tried-and-true rock trio, playing songs like "Great Expectations" and "No Rest" with the punchy pogo drums and bass of punk and the atmospheric guitars of an early U2 or Alarm. But always in the background -- in the songwriting, for certain, but also in the occasional harmonica and acoustic guitar -- was the specter of American and English folk music. It was when Sullivan (NMA's primary consistency) embraced that folk passion, with fiddles and more unabashed traditional-song influences in his songwriting, that the band came into its own. It's then that the heart-on-sleeve everyday anthems became something more, something particular to NMA and not necessarily for the average new waver.
Maybe the best example of that is 1989's "Green and Grey", a masterpiece of the confused loyalties of those condemned to life in a diseased provincial town. It's a topic Sullivan had touched on before: "Better Than Them", about the no-hopers who wile away the hours putting down their surroundings, is practically the song's stage-setting prelude. But "Green and Grey" is something special, a single song encapsulating the terrible choices of the Thatcher years, where someone who talks "about winners and losers all the time / As if that was all there was" has to leave his dying town in order to succeed. And about the scorn of those left behind to continue fighting a losing battle: "Do you think you're so brave just to go running / To that which beckons to us all".
From 1989 on, New Model Army's folk leanings remained out of the closet, culminating in recent all-acoustic gigs and Sullivan's folk-band side projects, as well as songs such as the wonderfully condemning gospel of "You Weren't There". (Atypically, "Living in the Rose" is a horrific shot at modern-rock regularity with predictably unlistenable results.) But overall, the band has remained true to its strengths: 1993's "Here Comes the War" and 2000's "Orange Tree Roads" tell the same political tales of bedraggled underdogs and oppressed everymen in the same punchy rock settings as "Great Expectations".
It's rare that a singles collection can come across with such album-like cohesiveness as Great Expectations. It's rare, too, that a band can continue to tread the same musical pathways for twenty years and remain -- at least in the snapshot format of a single -- fresh and worthwhile. But New Model Army is a band of contradictions and confusions, a rarity worth holding on to for a little bit longer.