Some music is forever tinged with sadness: (Sitting On The) Dock Of The Bay, released just three days after the death of its singer Otis Redding; Nirvana’s Unplugged album, a signpost that no one could read until it was too late. And now, perhaps, Big Big Train’s Welcome To The Planet, announced before the shocking death of the band’s singer David Longdon in November last year and released after.
Under such circumstances it’s tempting to pull on the surgical gloves and examine the album in forensic detail, searching for prescience that almost certainly isn’t there. Indeed, those looking for some sort of foreshadowing will run up against a problem almost immediately: Welcome To The Planet is an album that bursts with life.
Opener Made From Sunshine is as effervescent as its title suggests, with Longdon singing of Cloud 9 and blooming magnolia trees while horns parp cheerily. It’s almost ludicrously upbeat. The Connection Plan is similarly euphoric, with sawing violin and Greg Spawton’s Chris Squire-like bass ushering in a chorus that soars merrily into the progosphere. When the band have ‘done happy’ in the past, it has often sounded forced (we’re looking at you, Wassail) but here it just sounds right.
Fear not, long-form grumps, it’s not all If You’re Happy And You Know It (Clap Your Hands). The instrumental A Room With No Ceiling clatters along like an experimental out-take from Yes’s Relayer. Bats In The Belfry sounds like Genesis doing a jazz-rock makeover of the Hawaii Five-O theme, before descending into techno-chaos.
And, most extraordinarily of all, the magnificent title track, which kicks off somewhere near musical hall, throws in some 10cc, revives the ghost of Paddy McAloon’s I Trawl The Megahertz, almost turns into Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky, stumbles briefly into country rock, then expires just when you think it won’t.
It’s strange to talk of legacy when Big Big Train had so much obvious forward momentum. It’s bewildering to think of Welcome To The Planet as a fitting tribute to a singer’s talents when so much business was unfinished. And it feels ungracious to use words like ‘had’ and ‘was’ when the journey might not yet be over.
Whatever happens next, Welcome To The Planet is a Big Big Train album people will love. It’s an album of wild ambition and near-transcendent beauty. It’s an album of showmanship, surprises and spirit. It’s frequently joyous, fiendishly clever, and occasionally funny. And throughout, David Longdon shines.