To celebrate their 30th anniversary, We The Collective finds the Levellers’ reaffirming their mission statement, renewing their vows. Recorded at Abbey Road, with renowned producer John Leckie, the album re-imagines eight of their classic songs – from a vast back catalogue – including some singles, plus two new tracks.
Played acoustically, with an added string section, the rather gentler-sounding song arrangements might be seen as some sort of acknowledgement of the passage of time. After all, these once passionate young men are now passionate middle-aged men. Greyer now, they nonetheless stand proudly by their body of work, still enraged by injustice and hypocrisy. As well they might be, since it’s all too horribly apparent how relevant these songs continue to be.
Where opening track ‘Exodus’ ploughs straight in with some punchy late-Beatles strings, the punky ‘Subvert’ remains a quick-fire stomp, set off with scraping strings and a militaristic drum. Generally, though, the pace here feels marginally slower, the songs have a bit more room and now seem designed for listening rather than moshing. This allows greater reflection and depth to emerge, such as in ‘England My Home’, which is suitably thoughtful, angry and disappointed. ‘Liberty Song’ and ‘Dance Before The Storm’ also smooth out the melody lines, deepen the groove and allow space for the lyrics to shine.
‘Hope Street’ replaces the sawing guitar of the original with heavy strings, adding a vaguely distant-sounding vocal, almost like catching the sound of a busker playing just around the corner. ‘Elation’ features Celtic-flavoured backing vocals and a bombastic climax, in place of its original electro/bass fuzz-out. Its ‘House Of The Rising Sun’-style vocal is delivered over a discombobulating harpsichord loop.
The brace of new songs – both highly topical and political, naturally – stand up well in the ensemble. ‘The Shame’ is a withering indictment both of the situations that create refugees and the pointlessness of well-intentioned, but ultimately ineffectual, sympathy.
The Phil Spector-ish burst of drums and tambourines that open ‘Drug Bust McGee’ lead, not to a wall of sound, but to the alarming first line “I stole my name from a dead baby”. A bitter tale of an undercover cop sting unfolds: the women duped into relationships – and creating families – built on lies and deception in the name of infiltrating activist groups. It’s a dark and woeful song, all the more so for the appalling truth of it. (As a small grumble, the review copy of the CD doesn’t credit the female singers or other musicians. Hopefully this is remedied on the full sleeve notes).
The album closes with the anthemic ‘One Way’. This classic crowd singalong has been strangely stripped back so that when the chorus arrives it doesn’t boom out assertively, it sort of shuffles in with its head down. Perhaps it’s meant to make the listener pause and reassess: the internet age allows us to be too quick to judge others, as traditional assumptions about faith, gender and lifestyle dissolve. A bit more “live and let live” would be nice. Or, might it be an awkward nod to the notion that unfettered individualism has eroded our social conscience? Nonetheless, it sadly dulls the impact of what’s arguably the band’s most famous call to self-determination and ends the CD on a rather downbeat note.
Postscript: It would be disingenuous not to mention the dreadful personal circumstances that have delayed the release of this album and tour (now postponed to the summer) – but without wishing to dwell on them, either. It’s too easy to find things, retrospectively, in the music that couldn’t possibly have been there when it was recorded: too easy to be misdirected. Time will give the fairest hearing and be the better reviewer in the end. All condolences to Charlie Heather and family, and to the band.
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Artist website: www.levellers.co.uk
‘Drug Bust McGee’ – official video: