Following his breakthrough with 2015’s release of second album, Striking Matches In The Wind, the soft-voiced Somerset-based singer-songwriter returns with a full-on political collection of songs about “transience and change; doubt and assurance” that again features Lukas Drinkwater on double and electric bass while bolstering the sound with the addition of drums, keyboards and fiddle.
He kicks off by pondering the role of the singer-songwriter as social commentator on the shuffling drum beat and tumbling chords of ‘Change The World’, playfully questioning the gulf between the surface political affectations (“I’ve got a Che Guevara hat.. you can’t get more socialist than that”) and deeper beliefs and commitments.
‘Live & Learn’, the opening line of which provides the album title, has distinct musical hints of Cat Stevens to its theme about how the convictions which shape us can change over time and, more importantly, having the strength to accept that doubt is not “a dirty word” and the courage to admit if we were wrong. The same theme is explored in a more Martyn Joseph-like uptempo mode on the self-explanatorily titled ‘The Right To Be Wrong’ which talks of the need to admit our mistakes and to see the perspectives of others.
The sparsely strummed ‘Where’d You Get That Heart From?’ is a biting questioning of the cold implacability and cruelty, souls “as black as coal”, of those in power towards the defenceless, a topic that finds more direct expression in the sardonic lyrics of ‘Doing Well’ which is, essentially, a distillation in song of the main thrust of Ken Loach’s new film, I, Daniel Blake, the way bureaucrats with no healthcare training asses the fitness to work or otherwise of those on or applying for benefits. It too will, likely be likened to Joseph, but I’m put more in mind of the early Transatlantic albums of Richard Digance.
‘I Spat Fire’ apparently had its genesis in the paradoxical nature of a poetry tent event in which he sang his angry songs while assorted ladies read sweet poems about gardens, an experience translated into a gentle acoustic contemplation on how, using imagery of rebirth, light and dark can go together, the one illuminating the other.
Quietly sad, ‘Other’ turns the spotlight on something more specific and (echoing the album title) is written from a transgender perspective to emerge as a reflection on identity, self-expression and the need to be true to yourself and “to be on the outside what I am within”, along with the acknowledgement that it’s never easy, either for the person in question or those they love.
Very much resonant of Joseph in terms of delivery and sound and probably my personal favourite, the rousing, ringing strummed guitar Wait Your Turn, with its rousing refrain of how “you don’t get much change out of the bottom of a ballot box”, chimes neatly with the ongoing arguments over Brexit in its observations on how democracy goes beyond the polling station and how change comes about through the stands people take and the commitment to progress.
The gaze becomes more intimate with the cry for help of ‘Me and The Silence’, a powerful song about suicidal depression and a call for empathy, while, another song about the individual lost in an uncaring and often cruel world, ‘The Louisa Miner’ draws on the story of a friend’s grandfather, a worker in the Co. Durham pits in the early part of the last century, who lost his life at 48 due to the conditions in the mine, something to which, of course, colliery and coroner refused to apportion blame, and extends to lament not just his death, but that of the industry to which he and many others gave “service and sacrifice”.
Somewhere Between closes on two positive notes. A lilting fingerpicked waltz, ‘Creation Is Laughing’ is about how corrupt empires eventually crumble but, Allen’s fiddle dancing in the background, more about standing in the sun or under the starts in the assurance of hope and faith restored. And, finally, ‘At The Last’, is a simple, fingerpicked, almost hymnal reverie that, drawing on searfaring imagery, is about our strength to weather the storm and the tides that batter us as we grow older and, when run aground, “to stand once more upon that shore and know at last that all I ever sought was how to be at peace where I am.”
A protest album burning with anger and compassion, on the opening track he sings how it’s people not songs that change the world, but how, sometimes, songs can change a heart. These are such songs and they demand to get stuck in the middle with you.
Artist’s website: www.stevepledger.co.uk
‘Other’ – official video: