Album Review | RUF | Review by Marc Higgins | Stars: 5/5
William Blake, in the oft quoted opening verse of “To See a World” talks about taking the time to look at, and find the sublime in the small and ordinary. “To see a world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower” Philip Larkin, grumbling poet, had the gift of being even to mine through the ordinary to find the extra ordinary and that is very much what it feels like Chris Wood is doing here. The delicately picked and strummed acoustic of tracks like “The Cottager’s Reply” or “Come Down Jehovah” from 2007’s Trespasser, via rawer tracks like Hollow Point from 2009 has evolved or mutated. Chris himself talks about a musical journey in the notes of None the Wiser from 2013 and his love affair with an Epiphone guitar and the Hammond Organ. None the Wiser to these ears is the transition album, the imagery in the lyrics shifts to more contemporary and the sound becomes more electric and soulful. That deliberate disconnect where dark lyrics are wrapped in beautiful folky acoustic guitar, to a degree falls away. Wood’s website describes that album as the sound of a pub band singing the hymns and anthems of a disaffected people. It is this spirit that 2017’s So Much to Defend bubbles with. It’s the modern folk song of Billy Bragg. But, like Bragg So Much to Defend is never a bleak listen, Chris Wood’s soulful and real voice is warm and comforting, adding to the lyrics warm glow. The title track opens the album with a simple guitar and percussion backing and a rich stream of consciousness lyric. A number of short stories beautifully intertwine as we peek into a set of unfolding lives. Like Blake, Wood looks hard at the ordinary and in 21st Century Britain’s adversity finds beauty. Words flow and his mastery is such that it feels effortless and without artifice. In every life, Wood shows that despite difficulty, there are beautiful moments and there is always something to defend. First world problems, popular culture references even nursery rhymes catch Wood’s eye or ear and are woven into what is a future folk song. Chris Wood’s Art School teacher criticised him as having “a remarkable eye for trivia”. Their loss is very much our gain, under the singer’s gaze nothing is trivial, rather his songs are shot through with poignant detail that makes their stories real. “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” is a love song for those leaving home and the parents watching them wobble off with life’s training wheels still attached. It is shot with an aching soulfulness that is Curtis Mayfield singing Joni Mitchell’s Hejira. Underpinning it all, under the observational narrative, is a parents’ love and a heavenly Hammond Organ. “Only a Friendly” is another love story, the love for the familiar and the real. Chris Wood observes ordinary life sharply with a Shakespearean sense of the larger than life and a touch of Tom Sharpe’s bawdiness. The clipped electric guitar is joined by a banjo and wry poetry ensues. Agriculturally a Flail is a tool for separating grain and husk, wheat and chaff and body and flesh as a gladiatorial weapon. Here in “The Flail”, a brutal little ditty, it’s a metaphor for brutal indiscriminate change as ordinary people are thrown about and cast aside. This theme continues in “1887”. The track is a setting to music of one of AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad poems. 1887 was the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Here Wood wryly demonstrates that it’s the ordinary individuals, through faceless sacrifice who save the Queen. “Strange Cadence” is built around a hypnotic looping guitar riff and a mournful flugelhorn that is pure Jon Hassell along with “The Shallow End” it deals with our ability to delude ourselves, to be dazzled and distracted from the important issues. Like “So Much to Defend”, “This Love Won’t Let You Fail” and “Only a Friendly” Wood uses his observation of the small details as a way of pulling back the camera and reveal the big issues in a way that is powerful and engaging. In “More Fool Me” the joke is very much on Chris Wood as he documents the end of the traditional music business and with it the life of the gigging troubadour. This is the way the world of the musician ends, not with a bang but with a wry smile and a sea of raised camera phones watching the performance for the audience. “You May Stand Mute” is a song originally written in 2009 to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of Origin of Species. Time has twisted the lyrics slightly some of the Darwin references are gone and fossil shells have become phosphor shells and human bombs as contemporary Chris Wood poignantly ponders faith how it connects and divides. So Much to Defend is an album that tackles difficult issues and difficult times head on, but Chris Wood’s skill as a lyricist and ear for detail and his sometimes cracked but always warm and compelling vocal means we are enlightened and we are lifted rather than lectured and left down. As the intertwined stories of the title track show it’s a question of perspective whether you fix on the light or the shade. The graphic cover showing half a tug of war makes it very clear that we are not alone, that we are many that we are pulling together, demonstrating that there is so much to defend and a will to defend it. An excellent contemporary album, latest in a long line of excellent albums from a man who may only now be hitting his stride. There is so much here to recommend.