Arriving a year after their chart-topping debut, Steeltown was never likely to be received with quite the same degree of froth and hyperbole as its hit-stuffed predecessor. In truth, however, the second Big Country album remains the finest in the band’s catalogue and a stirring testament to the sublime songwriting talent of Stuart Adamson.
With the exception of The Great Divide, a song with verses that sound like bits of other, better BC songs glued together, this is a wonderfully coherent and emotionally potent collection of windswept anthems. Sharper and narrower in focus than The Crossing and lacking its remorseless romanticism, songs like thunderous singles East Of Eden and Where The Rose Is Sown showcased a newfound grit and soul that Adamson never really surpassed, with only the mesmerising haze of Come Back To Me and the twinkly hearted Girl With Grey Eyes straying from a righteous path of bombastic emoting and towering melodic oomph.
The bright-eyed thump of Tall Ships Go and the rolling grooves of Rain Dance have stood the test of time well, but it’s the closing Just A Shadow that most vigorously proclaims Adamson’s gentle brilliance, with lines like ‘Why are faces filled with anger/that should only shine with youth’ ringing as true today as three decades ago.
As an extra incentive, this deluxe edition contains a bonus disc brimming with rarities and non-album fare. Devoted fans will be more than familiar with exquisite stand-alone single Wonderland, of course, and radio edits of Steeltown’s singles are only of value if you absolutely have to hear what they sounded like after some judicious but arbitrary pruning, but the remaining lost gems are well worth a listen, not least a respectful but shrewdly countrified version of Roxy Music’s Prairie Rose and the starry-eyed Springsteen shuffle of Winter Sky.
Similarly, two early versions of Wonderland is over-egging the pudding somewhat and it’s hard to imagine anyone being overly thrilled by “rough mix” takes on Tall Ships Go and East Of Eden when the final versions were so strong, but these expanded releases are always aimed squarely at the diehards and, if nothing else, the soulful bluster of instrumental curio Bass Concerto provides a pleasing reminder that Big Country were deliriously skilled ensemble players.
Steeltown may have precipitated a very gradual but unmistakable decline in commercial fortunes for its creators, but when it comes to uplifting and honest music, 80s rock produced very few albums that come even remotely close to this.