Generally, I’m not a fan of comebacks. Sure, there are exceptions – Johnny Cash, the Go-Betweens, the Wild Swans, off the top of my head – but for every unexpectedly great later work, there are many which make you wish an artist or a group had let their oeuvre be. It tends to be the case that if you stop exercising that song-creating muscle, it’s hard to get it back into the shape it was in when you were working out regularly.
Increasingly though, people do pick up their instruments again, once nostalgia for the old days overcomes the sour memories of the internecine tensions of being in a band; or the thankless grind of forever trying to draw attention to the music is forgotten; or, more practically, because the kids have become independent beings, and time has opened up again.
The Claim – Davids Arnold and Read, Martin Bishop and Stuart Ellis – are in that exceptional bracket. 31 years after their last LP, and ten after the Black Path retrospective, here is (or are) The New Industrial Ballads. (It’s a not untypical title for the Claim, somewhat defiant, a little bit odd. But meaningful, since each of those words – ‘new’, ‘industrial’, and ‘ballad’ – could stand for something else. Art and work and love: three important ingredients in good and fruitful lives.) There’s been no apparent diminishment of their musical nous or chops, while David Read has obviously looked after his vocal chords, because they can still express what they used to be able to as effortlessly as ever.
After an instrumental prelude, the driving beat of Journey kicks in. Its musical rise and fall suggests that it’s the group’s intention to take the listener on a journey, too, through time and space and mood. It’s followed by Smoke & Screens, which starts off as an acoustic paean before electric guitars and strings stir up an emotional storm that’s comprised partly of remorse, and partly weariness. In these two songs you have the album’s lyrical concerns in a nutshell – proudly (but never overbearingly) political on the one hand, and on the other, charting the ups and downs of emotional fortune that tend to accumulate once there is more of life behind than ahead of you.
Like London buses, a third deeply affecting melody arrives alongside the kerb and takes you to The Haunted Pub, where David Read looks back down the years and simultaneously mourns and celebrates the memories such pubs evoke. Light Bending also has the pep and melodious zip of, say, God, Cliffe and Me or Waiting For Jesus from back in the day. Vocally, David Read sounds at turns sure-footed, reflective, vulnerable, as young as he was when the Claim were first making their way in the world, and yet never less than gracefully mature. Musically, the album is rich and beautifully recorded, with a just-so balance between detail and space; the group have clearly taken their time to get everything absolutely right. Is it a better album than Boomy Tella? In its greater variety and lived wisdom, definitely. If it wasn’t foolish to wish that things had turned out differently, I might say it’s a shame or even a crime that the intervening years haven’t given us another half dozen Claim albums of likely the same quality; another sixty odd melodies sung in that wonderful, lilting voice.
If these are The New Industrial Ballads, what were the old? That depends upon which side of the Atlantic you are. Over in America, they were the songs of struggle which emerged from the coal mines, textile mills and farms of the 19th century, kept alive in the 20th by the likes of Pete Seeger. On this side of the pond, we’re talking about the broadside ballads that came out of the Industrial Revolution – broadside as opposed to broadsheet, because the songs were printed solely on one side of paper and sold cheaply. The specific inspiration is Jennifer Reid‘s recent efforts to air the broadside balladry of Manchester and Lancashire, and it’s led to the Claim’s own adaption of an industrial ballad in the form of When the Morning Comes, sections of which recall the spoken word French on the Jam’s Scrape Away, and also remind me of Ultramarine’s Kingdom (featuring Robert Wyatt on vocals). In a similar act of historical reclamation, its lyrics were adapted from The Song of the Lower Classes by Ernest Jones, which Ultramarine discovered in the folk song archives of the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House.
At least one of this new set of songs is an old industrial ballad of the Claim’s own devising: Hercules dates from demos recorded around 1991-92. Brought back to life after all these years, it’s the equal of Aaron Neville’s song of the same name (written by Allan Toussaint), which may or may not have suggested the title and the not dissimilar subject matter:
‘Looking from my window sill
From a tower block I see
Boarded-up shops, run-down housing
There’s your Big Society’
An absolute highlight of the album comes when the pacy Just Too Far abruptly judders to a halt and immediately segues into the down-tempo, mournful Mrs Jones. It’s hard not to see the latter as a companion piece to Boomy Tella’s Mrs Shepherd, and it’s a dose of the kind of Thames delta blues I never thought I’d have the pleasure of hearing again.
On 30 Years, old fellow traveller Vic Templar (aka Ian Greensmith) returns to narrate another story that makes the passing of time explicit. While lyrically the album as a whole does feel like a journey into the past, musically it all sounds too fresh to be regarded merely as a period piece. Eventually the journey arrives back at the beginning, and Estuary Blues and Greens – the scenery that was the backdrop to the Claim’s formative years, and is now an anchor in the present: ‘this place helps me find my feet’. You could add Estuary Blues and Greens to the Action’s legendary Rolled Gold recordings without there being any drop-off in quality or loss of that collection’s visionary, psychedelic mood – it’s that good. As is the song with which the Claim close the album, Under Canvas. It’s a personal ballad in the style of early John Martyn or Bert Jansch, and as touching as anything on Paul Weller’s most recent studio album, the wonderfully folky True Meanings. I’d love to hear more in this style, but then I’d be happy to hear more of the Claim’s music in any style they choose. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait another three decades for it.
- The New Industrial Ballads by The Claim (A Turntable Friend)