Procol Harum - Novum album review

Psych-pop pioneers make a long overdue but welcome return

Cover art for Procol Harum - Novum album

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To the broadest of demographics, Gary Brooker’s name is umbilically attached to one particular song. So much so that when the time comes, the laziest and least conscientious obituaries will be headlined ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale Man Dies’.

In a 2009 BBC survey, that single, Procol Harum’s debut hit and a worldwide No.1 topped yet another chart: the most played single of the previous 75 years. At the time, it had been six years since the band’s last album, a recording hiatus that’s only coming to an end now with Novum.

Brooker has nonetheless kept busy touring with a relatively settled line-up, including elaborate shows with orchestral accompaniment (later released on DVD) and overseeing the remastering of Procol Harum’s back catalogue.

Despite what could be interpreted as a highfalutin title (novum is a word coined by Croatian writer and academic Darko Suvin to describe scientifically plausible innovations used in science fiction), this set of 11 new songs is decidedly less prog, psych or symphonic than what might be regarded as the group’s signature material.

As inventive and exploratory as their back pages were, it’s somehow sensible and reassuring to hear the band leavingPandora’s Box unopened and deciding not to take A Salty Dog for another walk. Brooker is 72 this year, and his subject matter is age-appropriate but pleasingly free of fuddy-duddy autumnal wheezing. The love-gone-bad despatchI Told On You is a mid-paced bluesy rocker in a Joe Cocker vein (‘I knew you were plotting for your takeover/The notes you were jotting on the way from Dover’), and fairly typical of former Cream collaborator Pete Brown’s lyrics throughout. Unrequited love for a best friend’s wife drives the country hues of Last Chance Motel, and similarfrownedupon emotions rear their head in the ballad Don’t Get Caught.

Motifs of the past echo loudest on the string-led baroque tropes of Sunday Morning, but for the most part, Novum offers straight-down-the-line AOR of a consistently high quality. The lightness of touch and ready wit are especially evident on Neighbour, a jaunty accordion underpinning a bitchy paean to the bloke down the street with a better life (‘No matter how much I try to catch him up/ He always seems to have a fuller cup’).

At the heart of the album is Brooker’s dextrous keyboard work, his pristine piano-playing embellished in all the right places by Josh Phillips’s Hammond organ. What’s equally impressive is the might of Brooker’s voice, which has lost none of its vigour in the 50 years since he first skipped the light fandango.

Terry Staunton was a senior editor at NME for ten years before joined the founding editorial team of Uncut. Now freelance, specialising in music, film and television, his work has appeared in Classic Rock, The Times, Vox, Jack, Record Collector, Creem, The Village Voice, Hot Press, Sour Mash, Get Rhythm, Uncut DVD, When Saturday Comes, DVD World, Radio Times and on the website Music365.