The heartbreaking news of Big Big Train vocalist and multi-instrumentalist David Longdon’s death in November 2021 will inevitably colour perceptions of his band’s 14th album. An outpouring of creative energy that comes just six months after Common Ground, it’s become something different in the wake of his passing.
If it is to form part of his epitaph, then it’s hugely fitting, A musical and thematic extension of Common Ground, much of Welcome To The Planet speaks of positivity, community and shared history – both individual and collective. Opener Made From Sunshine, written by Longdon and guitarist Dave Foster, sets the tone with a warm-hearted, upbeat affirmation of hopefulness.
With strings channelling shades of King Crimson, The Connection Plan puts the BBT spin on what sounds much like a construction that drummer Nick D’Virgilio could
have written when fronting Spock’s Beard. Lanterna features keyboard player Carly Bryant’s gorgeous piano throughout. In fine BBT tradition, bassist Greg Spawton harnesses historical and architectural inspiration in a song celebrating ‘mankind building […] tall towers of light to extend our reach into the sea’. Signalling the connection with the Common Ground sessions, there’s also a musical nod to Atlantic Cable from that album.
BBT’s penchant for a particularly British nostalgia is revisited with Proper Jack Froster, Spawton’s bittersweet paean to childhood. Capitoline Venus is a beautiful, brief love song with the subtle Mellotron and Longdon’s affecting vocal delivery now providing even more of an emotional gut-punch.
There’s a contrasting pair of instrumentals. Rikard Sjöblom’s A Room With No Ceiling is a beguiling concoction of 70s sounds and European folk/prog textures with a hint of R&B, while D’Virgilio’s Bats In The Belfry suggests a whiff of funk and soul, giving brass and bass something of a workout (the drummer’s soloing in the second half is outstanding).
Closing the album, the title track boasts some prog musical theatre, hinting at vaudeville and music hall, juxtaposed with expansive massed vocal sections that are simultaneously spacious, contemplative and majestic. Right now though, it’s hard to accept Bryant’s comforting assertion that ‘Everything is okay … Everything. Is. Okay’.
Welcome To The Planet has solid Big Big Train DNA, real heart and great performances, not least from the man whose voice became inseparable from the band’s identity. Although the next destination on Big Big Train’s journey now unclear, it must surely still be informed by David Longdon’s immeasurable legacy.