Arriving in my inbox as an on the off-chance submission, Be Under No Illusions is the first full length album by Belfast singer-songwriter Steve McCullough following a series of EPs and his first new material since 2015, describing it as an “exercise in self-care as I’ve tried to make sense of the whirlwind of the last five years”.
As you might imagine, therefore, the songs have a fair degree of introspective angst as well as observations of the world around, opening with the slow, rumbling drums, electric guitar and piano ‘Crisis’ with its “Broken commanders in ruffled suits and ties/Designating targets”, where “all you believe is balanced on the edge of a knife” addressing an increasingly dysfunctional world as he sings “the dark has come and I don’t want to be dragged inside”, the line “Fly across the world to look into a madman’s eye” possibly a reference to Trump but currently equally pertinent to Putin.
The air of disquiet carries over into the more uptempo folk blues fingerpicking and keyboards wash of ‘Leave A Light On’ (“Deep in my bones I don’t feel safe”), inspired by Alyn Smith’s call to the EU to “leave a light on” for Scotland to return to the EU if it gained independence, addressing the UK/EU relationship and that between Scotland and England in “We turned on each other faster than two lyre birds/Made my mistakes, I’ll change my ways”. The jangling ‘Conversational’ returns to the way social media and fake news can stir up young male discontent, opening oppression and defeatism (“They send you out into the street where you have only known defeat/The vultures are circling above/Never made yourself amount to much, you use excuses as a crutch”).moving through political cynicism (“Elections are just another ruse/To those who’d have us reconcile, those folk would run a country mile/But someday they’ll quit turning the screws”) to defiance (“The voices just won’t go away so here’s your independence day/They can’t stop you from singin’ out the blues”) but not simply ignoring views that don’t fit with yours (“if the other side’s ideas don’t make the cut/Well they’re just conversational”).
Although it does mix its imagery with legionnaires on one hand and the Trojan Horse (painted red, white and blue in reference to the impetus that drove Brexit) on the other, given the album context, it’ll be no surprise that ‘Rome’ compares today’s societal collapse with that of the Roman Empire, blindly ignoring the warning signs of history as he sings “Rome is ever burning down”. By contrast, the nimbly fingerpicked, hoarsely sung ‘Meet Me On The Crescent Steps’ has a more personal backdrop, the title a reference to his old stomping grounds of St Jude’s Crescent in Belfast, the song about living in the past and the reluctance to embrace change (“I’ll show you a town/Where people never seem to stray outside the lines/The cataracts that come when you’re familiar with a space/Began to form sometime ago behind their eyes/The fear that swirls around you when you’re rooted to the spot/It slowly drip-feeds little messages of hate/And as the world flies past you it flows glacial this pace/Until you know just who you are when it’s too late”).
That toxic nostalgia captured in “the phoney photographs that hold us all” is also at the heart of ‘Remember’ (“Treasured times are holy relics/They get beneath your skin/You turn to them when times get hard”), initially equally fingerpicked and hushed vocals before opening out into a more urgent soundscape as he bitterly declares “‘we’re all hungry/For all the times that don’t exist/We’re all hungry/For reasons not to cut our wrists”.
Elsewhere, the jauntily strummed ‘Bring Me Home’ dates back to just before Trump’s election in 2016, riding to power on a tide of disillusioned middle-state Americans (“We’re just dogs, fighting for what’s thrown our way”) hoping for a change in the system regardless of the cost (“I’d throw my lot in with the devil if he’d bring me home”), but aware that easy answers are rarely solutions (“Will I be on the right side of history/When the gavel sounds?”) and hoping to have strength not to follow the piper’s tune (“I pray that I’ll resist the devil/When he sings that song”).
Then the chugging slightly Latin-tinged shuffle ‘One & Done’ turns the gaze inwards as he examines his own faults and failings (“I procrastinate/And try to pick my battles/But there’s so much left undone”), wondering “Do the deeds maketh the man?/Do I measure up where I stand?/Am I special?”, before concluding he’s not done too bad (“then I look around to see how far I’ve come”). That’s complemented by the folksy fingerpicked ‘I’ll Go Quietly’ which he describes as “a campfire song about the end of the world” and basically says, that if he didn’t measure up (“If I’m buried by the weight of my mistakes…If life’s a test and I’ve failed it now and then”), hopefully he’ll face St Peter with equanimity (“I’ll go quietly/Satisfied”),
He takes a musical tangent for ‘Your Fool’, a lazing, jazzy, whisperingly sung duet with Ciara O’Neill about being helplessly besotted with someone, but the album plays out on a far less romantic note, firstly with the piano blues ‘It All Comes Down’, a warning that we face problems of our own making and standing back and not doing anything is a certain recipe for disaster (“Well wasn’t that something?/They’ll say as they rake the coals/Right over what we had/Didn’t see that coming”). It ends with the fingerpicked 60s troubadour folk of the title track, a final salutary reminder that closing the door and doing nothing, whether to change the world or to change yourself, isn’t really an option and that “if you chase the almighty dollar for a living/You will reap what you sow…the things destroyed in your employ/Leave you with sins for which you must atone”, and you have use what little time you have to face the truth, however hard that may be, and not plead “the Nuremberg excuse”.
An album that touches on very present themes and concerns, politically and personally, but also echoes 60s protest singers, but more Phil Ochs than Dylan, Be Under No Illusions should be a welcome arrival in your mailbox too.
Artist’s website: www.steviemac.bandcamp.com
‘Bonnie & Clyde’ – official live video:
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