This album nearly didn’t happen. After the shock exits of Dave Gregory, Rachel Hall and Danny Manners in 2020, Big Big Train’s Greg Spawton and David Longdon wondered if the band might have run their course. Ultimately they realised there was more to be done, and the 13th BBT LP is a lucky turn indeed. Common Ground is the sound of the core members – Spawton, Longdon, Nick D’Virgilio and Rikard Sjöblom – regrouping, refining and hunkering down, together. With the help of some new faces and trusted sidemen, they’ve distilled the band’s essence and forged some of the best music yet.
Common Ground’s central theme is communication, communality and (every middle manager’s favourite phrase) ‘reaching out’. We’ve all had to do a lot of that over the past god-awful year, something addressed by the opener, The Strangest Times: ‘This world’s gone mad, we find ourselves in lockdown/Trying to get the lowdown from the PM’s 5pm address.’ It’s a little on-the-nose, but Longdon’s take on the pandemic is a bright, major-key affair, a defiant smile through gritted teeth. BBT’s primary keyboardist now, Sjöblom grabs the role with both hands, channelling his inner Elton with ebullient, Pinball Wizard-esque piano arpeggios. This is the band in Alive mode; it’s the kind of strong pop-rock tune that gets some prog fans a little antsy. They needn’t worry – the album’s freighted with serious progressive rock too.
Take Atlantic Cable, the very-Spawton 15-minute, five-part evocation of the laying of the first telegraph cables across that ocean. As well as furthering the album’s theme (‘Close the distance, bring all together/A world undivided, let mankind be as one’), it ruminates on Man’s interaction with the Earth, and the hard-skilled achievements of engineers. Great Eastern, the ship that laid the cable, was designed by Brunel (he of The Underfall Yard), and gets its own section. The tale is set to washes of sparse, melancholy piano and flute, to upbeat, hard-rocking Moog/Mellotron prog with funky clavinet moments, and a stirring motif. Incoming tour guitarist Dave Foster offers the fastest guitar solo in BBT history on this centrepiece among centrepieces.
D’Virgilio’s All The Love We Can Give has an odd meter and odder chords, yet it’s a life-affirming tune. Longdon starts out in an uncharacteristically low vocal register not too far from the Human League’s Philip Oakey. There’s some hard proggin’ to come over its eight minutes, with Spawton doing his best Chris Squire, but it’s pegged by a catchy, on-message refrain: ‘Decide to save another, Make it right to love each other/Making the heart grow stronger.’ D’Virgilio and Longdon are very different singers, but their co-vocals work well on here, the two pulling together in common purpose.
More accomplished symphonic prog comes on Black With Ink, Spawton’s historical paean to libraries, with yet another highly contagious chorus line: ‘We see the same stars, walk the same ground/Lit by the same sun we could be one.’ Here and elsewhere BBT’s stalwart engineer Rob Aubrey brings the sparkle to the sound, his mixing/mastering work totally in sync with the creative propulsion of the band.
Happily, the vocals of new touring keyboardist Carly Bryant are all over the album, adding skilful harmonies and a welcome female tone. On Dandelion Clock, her floating backing lines enhance the mood of a song about the transient nature of life. The album’s violinist – Lau’s Aidan O’Rourke – tastefully doubles the piano/synth parts here. His strings are a texture throughout; we’re beyond Folklore’s meadow now.
The nearest we get to folk is the verse of the spine-tingling title track. A heartfelt love song with a big, big chorus, Common Ground wears its musical complexity with ease and grace. Its writer Longdon is in fine voice, and Sjöblom gets his teeth into a guitar hero wah-wah solo. (Hard to believe he’s the same person playing on Headwaters, the album’s reverb-drenched, palate-cleansing piano piece.)
A symphonic behemoth in 5/4, Apollo is D’Virgilio’s stab at writing Big Big Train’s Los Endos. All members play out of their skins, and Dave Desmond’s brass quintet make a welcome return on it. Their warm, stoic sound still taps straight into a very British pathos, almost at DNA level, and that’s never been truer than on closing track, Endnotes. This grand Spawton love song will leave you with a little something in your eye as the brass, the band, and then the record gently peter out.
With its beating heart, massive brain and positive theme, Common Ground is the sound of a band strongly reinvigorated. They retained their nerve through the strangest times, and Big Big Train have rebounded with some of the biggest, best and proggiest music in their catalogue.