The “Grim” in “Grimspound”

So far, I’ve seen only praise for Big Big Train’s new album Grimspound. I’m afraid I’m going to strike a dischordant note here, and I apologise and hope it doesn’t stir up too much backlash. I’ve held back from responding immediately: partly because I didn’t want to go on first reactions; partly because I didn’t want to hurt group members’ feelings, particularly in the euphoria of an album launch.

The first Big Big Train music I ever heard was the title track from Folklore. Just over a minute into the track, the hairs on the back of my neck were like a yard broom, and I knew I needed BBT in my life. London Plane didn’t do much for me, but Ridgeway was…wow…and Salisbury Giant not far behind. Now knowing the backstory to Transit of Venus, I can’t listen to the track any more: I knew Patrick, and it hurts. Wassail was a tour de force, a real sing-along-a, drink-along-a romp. The finish of Winkie (the story of an heroic passenger pigeon) was grin-making. Telling the Bees was a beautiful roller-coaster.

I investigated the back catalogue. The First Rebreather blew me away. (Pun unintended!) As did many other tracks.

So I was like an overwound clock spring, looking forward to Grimspound. And then it arrived.

I feel like the spring broke.

Brave Captain has a good musical theme, but (even as a sometime pilot myself) it felt too lachrymose and overlong. The first of the death tracks that would dominate this album. Putting On the Racing Line, an instrumental, as the second track was brave; maybe a little too much so. I like it musically, but it just seems out of sequence. Perhaps it would have been better placed between Grimspound and The Ivy Gate — more of both later.

Experimental Gentlemen is standard-issue BBT: a mainstream track, but unremarkable. As often with BBT, echoes of Victoriana. Meadowland is gentle folk-rock in the modern Fairport Convention vein — in fact, it could pass very easily as a Fairport track.

We’re halfway through the album, and still nothing’s grabbed me. What’s going on here?

Grimspound. Jeez, what a depressing track. Less than two weeks before I heard it, I saw a member of my close family being carted away into an ambulance, barely conscious and covered in ECG leads. (Fortunately, it was a relatively transient problem, but could have been far worse.) Lyrics full of desperation at the futility of life. I didn’t need that. Still don’t.

The Ivy Gate’s even worse: a Shakespearean death toll without a note of relief. I do like the music — in the Irish folk style with funky, rocky bits that seem at odds with the story — but…blimey.

Now A Mead Hall in Winter. Still rather melancholy in parts (“With songs, science and stories / Hold back the fading light”), but I rather like the general lyrical content. It’s got depth in metaphor and emotion. Musically it’s a stand-out track, flipping between 4/4 time for the verse into waltz time for the hook — a strange choice, but it works — and an incremental time signature somewhere in the mid-section, just for a bit of jazzy fun. I like this track best of all.

Finishing with As the Crow Flies. Another jazzy track, complex musically and poetic lyrically. At last, an upbeat (hopeful, if a little nostalgic) touch to the words. Simply sung, which suits the instrumentation well. You don’t finish the album wanting to cut your wrists.

I’m so disappointed. An album with half the tracks about death. Not a single “banger” track like Wassail or Make Some Noise, although Mead Hall kinda tries. No hairs-on-the-back-of the next tracks like Folklore or The First Rebreather.

After Folklore, I wanted so much more. Perhaps Grimspound was, for me, the wrong album at the wrong time: the death/futility aspects to it cut a bit too deep right now.

I do understand why Big Big Train have picked the themes they did. It’s all about the corvids — the crow family — and their associations. That’s where the death songs come from: as scavengers, they’ve long been linked with dying; sadly as harbingers, rather than the clean-up squad that they are. Flying too, of course. As a former glider pilot, I can watch crows and rooks all day; they’re amazing flyers, and take an evident joy in flying and aerobatics that far transcends the simple necessity of most birds. They’re ridiculously intelligent, and emotionally complex, birds, with wicked senses of humour. If you think that’s anthropomorphising, you’ve probably not watched them for as long as I have! This is, I think, how the theme comes about, of society’s need to care about both sciences and arts if it’s to mean anything at all.

Perhaps this is part of the reason I have a problem with Grimspound. I think I’d been hoping for a joyful celebration of all that’s Corvus, and the nearest the album touches on that is in Mead Hall. The rest, to me, is forgettable or depressing.

Instrumentally and vocally, Big Big Train just gets better and better. They’re absolutely top, top-rate musicians. The track composition and production are peerless. I don’t think there’s anyone else outside the jazz field (and few within — I’d give Snarky Puppy a nod here) who could compete in any aspect of BBT’s professionalism and competence. I just wish all that talent had taken a slightly different direction in Grimspound.

I do hope the next album represents an upbeat change in tone.