Tom Robinson – Only The Now (2015)

Robinson’s been quiet for a long time in terms of touring and record releases. His last album of new material was back in 1996. Since then he’s played infrequent gigs, been an award winning radio presenter and raised a family. Now, in the year in which he qualifies for a bus pass, he has released a very good record and will hit the road again.

Robinson’s always had a political edge to his art, and the “single” (if we can still call it that) from this album is a stirring, angry and very up to date protest song “The Mighty Sword of Justice” inspired by a cut in legal aid. In interviews Robinson has said that it costs a hundred and fifty pounds to plead guilty, nearly five times that to plead innocent. The point is not new – “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor” – but the details in the lyrics (and all the references are British) bring it bang up to date. Robinson is joined by Billy Bragg, who writes and sings one verse, another outspoken performer. The performance is terriffic. It’s an old-fashioned protest song, easy to sing, feels good to sing, and it’ll stick in the mind far better than a pamphlet.

There’s also a rant about a banker who got a life line from the government without extending any leniency to his clients, and a portrayal of a suicide bomber. Strong stuff, very current yet also par for the course for Robinson.

But the dominant mood on this album is poignant remembrance, a thread which leads to a superb, dreamy cover of John Lennon’s “In My Life” with a guest vocal and marvellous guitar arrangement by Martin Carthy, another senior figure of British music. This pairing may seem incongruous given their histories – punk and pop for Robinson whilst Carthy is a giant of English folk song – but the two have worked together previously and in the seventies the often vocally political folk movement found much common ground with the politically vocal punk and two-tone movements. So Carthy and Robinson is not as unlikely a pairing as may be thought, and a very effective one.

Rounding off an assembly of elder statsmen, not to mention the plain elderly, is actor Ian McKellan who can’t sing and doesn’t try to. He provides the voice of God on “Holy Smoke” (about using pages from the Bible to roll a joint) but adds rather less to “One Way Street” though, as he gets to recite, “the fact that someone’s older doesn’t always make them wrong.”

“Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall” could be biographical or auto-biographical, deals with the joint problems of depression and suicide (Robinson is a long time activist in these fields), and has a gorgeously heart-breaking chorus.

Robinson closes the album with the fond, hopeful title track which seems directed towards his wife and children yet also has a more universal appeal.

Gerry Diver’s production makes the most of the songs without overwhelming them, and juxtaposes contemporary touches with a retro – but not contrived – sound. Robinson’s voice audibly has some miles on it, but it only aids the sincerity of his delivery. The song writing is strong – even the minor tracks offer interest.

List all these attributes and it’s clear that this is a fine album, with many genuinely moving movements and near perfect pop thrills on “Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Cry Out”.

What’s not to like here? Even if you have no great history with Robinson (I don’t) this is an appealing, high quality record and one of the best new things you will hear this year – even if you’re not on the wrong side of forty.

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