Tortoises in a world of hares, it’s been the steadiest of grinds for Big Big Train. Formed over 30 years ago by a couple of fans of the long-lost IQ, they’ve swum against every tide.
Thirteen albums in and a mere eight years after winning Breakthrough Act at the Progressive Music Awards, from the moment The Strangest Times begins with Rikard Sjoblom pounding his piano like he’s auditioning for The Feeling, it sounds like they’re actually breaking through.
That opener, one of two songs by singer David Longdon, is a lockdown anthem, referencing ‘the PM’s five p.m. address’ before admitting ‘I need to get out of this house’. It’s Big Big Train at their biggest and best: smart, catchy, ebullient, impeccably played and brilliantly arranged. And with three songwriters vying for space, intra-band competition continues to up their game.
Never afraid to proclaim their affection for Gabriel-era Genesis, Elton John (album tracks rather than hits) and the Yes of Fragile, Big Big Train were always prog. And on an album titled after nature writer Rob Cowen’s Londoner-meets-rural-Yorkshire memoir, they still are. Partly.
The wild chord changes of drummer Nick D’Virgilio’s sprawling All The Love We Can Give and his keyboards and brass driven instrumental Apollo are musical tours de force. Meanwhile, the 15 minutes of bassist Greg Spawton’s five-part Atlantic Cable might mark popular music’s first incursion into the mechanics of laying the 3,000-miles-long, first successful communications cable under the Atlantic in 1865.
There’s more than just one carriage on the Big Big Train of 2021, though. There’s a real Doobie Brothers feel to the galloping vocals on Longdon’s harmony-laden title track, but as befits a band who featured XTC’s Dave Gregory for 11 years and who have begun to cite Elbow as a major inspiration, there’s an underlying warmth beyond the precision on sagas such as Spawton’s Black With Ink, about libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad, albeit without mentioning either city or, indeed, libraries. Meanwhile, his closing Endnotes is an unashamed, if oblique, love song, which once again is given a new layer of gorgeousness by the brass section.
What now? Their ever-growing legion of fanatical followers should be delighted by an evolution that sounds like the album Big Big Train have been meaning to make all along. Yet while there’s more than a soupçon of new-found radio-friendliness, there’s nothing to undermine the notion that this might be their artistic as well as commercial time. At last.