Ever since we saw Chris Wood at the Red Lion Folk Club last year, I’ve been waiting for a new album from him. He was trying out some new material at that gig, some of which turned up on his new album, None the Wiser. I bought a copy yesterday, and have been listening to it avidly ever since. He has taken a slightly new direction with the sound on this album, and is playing (gasp!) a vintage electric Epiphone guitar, accompanied on many tracks by a Hammond organ (played by Justin Mitchell) and the more traditional double bass (Neil Harland). However, it isn’t at all jarring. The sound is warm, rich and fuzzy, and is a perfect, low-key complement to his delicious baritone voice.
It’s an odd coincidence that I heard the album so soon after musing about our current attitude towards the poor and disenfranchised, because much of this album is about the very same thing. Lyrically, the opening title track is probably one of the bleakest songs I’ve heard about the state we’re in, with a series of vignettes of struggling, isolated people trying to get by. However, the tune is almost bouncy, which makes the emotional punches delivered by the lyrics hurt that much more. There’s a line about a young lad “all but holding his mother’s hand” as they walk in to an Army recruiting office. For some reason, when I first heard it, I read it as the boy reassuring his mother, which was poignant enough, but on subsequent listens I realised that the boy is so young he’s seeking reassurance for himself, which makes it even sadder.
Once you’ve got over that track, there’s Wood’s lovely new setting of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’. If you’ve always hated the jingoistic, bombastic pomp of ‘Jerusalem’, you’ll probably love this setting (as I do). We heard this at the gig in a stripped down form, and it casts Blake’s words in a much more questioning and uncertain light — “And did we build Jerusalem here?”. Well, it doesn’t look like it, does it, but given the mess that the actual Jerusalem is in, perhaps that’s not a bad thing1. Also, a Hammond organ totally works on ‘Jerusalem’. I don’t know why no-one has thought of it before.
‘Thou Shalt’ is another fiercely angry track, the musical equivalent of an existential crisis in the early hours of the morning. It’s fantastic, as is the way that the rage gradually subsides to be replaced with something calmer and more hopeful, albeit weary and exhausted. “But thou shalt live it out with grace/For as long as you are here.”
It’s not all anger and depression, though. There are a few very tender love songs (‘The Sweetness Game’, ‘Tally of Salt’, and ‘The Little Carpenter’), all with the theme of getting on with loving one another despite difficult circumstances, and problems to overcome from without and within. We heard ‘The Little Carpenter’ at the gig, and it’s the only traditional song on this album.
The album ends with two ravishingly beautiful songs. The penultimate song is a setting of the poem ‘I Am’ by the 19th Century poet John Clare. It’s not the cheeriest of poems (Clare suffered from severe mental health problems towards the end of his life, which is when the poem was written), but Chris Wood makes it shimmering and serene, full of the healing and consoling effect of being in nature. That feeling is continued with the final track ‘The Wolfless Years’, which is a kind of parable about austerity making us appreciate what is really of value to us. By ‘us’, he clearly means ‘us, the people’ not the government, since they clearly wouldn’t know what is really valuable if it hit them in the face.
I do prefer to listen to albums in their recorded order if I’m listening to single albums, though I like the serendipitous musical conversations that come from occasionally listening to your whole collection on shuffle. This is one album that I think you really should listen to in the recorded order, because it leads you through some very dark places to somewhere more hopeful and optimistic.
- Yes, I know it’s supposed to be metaphorical. ↩