“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community”. Dorothy Day -Social Activist
In 2014 George Monbiot; political and environmental activist, author and columnist, wrote an article for The Guardian in which he argued that humanity is entering an age where lives are governed by consumerism, social isolation is celebrated, and personal goals of wealth and power feed ambition. “The age of loneliness is killing us” inspired a BBC documentary on the subject and George received a number of offers to expand on the argument in print. His reaction, however, was to avoid the social oxymoron of a one-man crusade against isolation and find a way to combat the epidemic of loneliness with one of the most unifying forces known to humanity – music.
The result is an enthralling album, released this week, in collaboration with singer-songwriter Ewan McLennan. Breaking the Spell of Loneliness is an album of songs written by George and Ewan. Each song is a short, eloquent and thought provoking essay on the destruction of our humanity and how it can be regained. The positive message, that there is still hope, is important, and the album opens on an upbeat, optimistic note with Such A Thing As Society.
Ewan’s stirring voice is backed by guitar and Lauren MacColl‘s fiddle in an affirmation of our ability to achieve things together, in communion with each other. Just as the darkness of the moon eclipses the sun; the barbarism we’re exposed to by the mass media eclipses the far greater generosity and compassion that exists. If we can regain our identity as citizens rather than consumers – there is hope.
‘its working and living and laughing together that makes us human kind’
The album discusses the broad topic of loneliness by examining our relationship with nature, our instinctive altruism, and the politics that foster loneliness. It also highlights the methods society can employ to overcome the decline. I’m Coming Home is especially poignant in this respect. Inspired by an anonymous blog written my immigrant hotel workers in London, the song presents the ultimate hope of the vulnerable and exploited worker, to return home. That forlorn hope is echoed in Ewan’s plaintive voice and the dark, lonely tone of Beth Porter‘s cello.
The ideas for the songs came from George. His poems, essays, and song notes were sent to Ewan in a spirit of complete trust in his ability as a songwriter and arranger. That trust was not misplaced – with the resulting songs conveying the spirit of George’s observations with a profound and engaging artistry.
These Four Walls represents the initial stimulation for the project. After waiting, impatiently, in a queue at the checkout while an elderly customer chatted to the store assistant, George realised that this may have been that customer’s only social interaction of the day or even the week.
“In the aisles, as I wonder, I practice my lines
‘Did you see the news’ and ‘The waether’s been fine’
But the checkouts have gone and the tills can talk
So I count my change and home I walk.”
There are other casualties of society’s decline, and The Night Desk offers a view of the world few of us ever see, far less acknowledge. The pace is upbeat, and the guitar light, as we’re lulled into a dark world populated by the comedy of St Patrick’s Day revellers, the pain of the abused and the anguish of the mentally ill. All are witnessed by the police officer behind The Night Desk – ‘The conductor of the chaos.”
Ewan’s own thoughts on the erosion of community and solidarity, and how the process contrasts with freedoms fought for in the past, was inspired by conversations with his grandparents. Above the nostalgic drone of Donald Shaw‘s harmonium My Time And Yours looks back to a Clydeside shipyard upbringing, as hard as it was fulfilling. The song charts the decline of community, the aspects of society that are being dismantled, and charges the next generation with reversing the decay.
There’s also a breath of nostalgia in The Child Inside, which tackles the loss of our communion with nature by examining the decline in children’s freedom to play outdoors; the effect it has on their social development and their interaction with nature. On the surface a simple song, but easily one of the most poignant, reflective moments on the album, as Ewan adopts the tones of Robert Burns’ best nature poems to convey a message that must resonate with any modern parent…
‘A wren is turning on the wing
Minnows weave and dart the water
Blackberries line the branch unpicked
By my son or by my daughter’
As the quote at the top of this review suggests, there is a solution, and the solution lies with society itself. That message is conveyed with resounding eloquence in Reclaim The Street. An engaging fiddle and banjo duet offers a chance to return to a caring society with a simple act of community…
‘So roll out the beer, lay out the tables
Hang the flags and come out to eat
Open wide your doors and stand together
Today we’re reclaiming the street’
Very soon McLennan and Monbiot will be taking to the road to do what this project set out to achieve – engage. In a series of live events, George will provide a narration to the songs Ewan has written. At those shows the rousing chorus above is sure to be a popular sing-along; what better way is there to invoke the spirit of community? The album’s closing song, however, the only cover version, is sure to invoke that same spirit with even greater power. We Shall Overcome is perhaps the world’s best-known song of hope and provides the perfect summary of the album.
Delivered in a gentle arrangement that builds beautifully from Ewan’s soft, plaintive voice to accommodate fiddle, Sid Goldsmith‘s slide guitar and a rich warm chorus of voices. I have a strong feeling that the same chorus will carry even more power during those live performances.
It’s no understatement to say that I feel privileged to have been given a chance to write about this album. It’s a challenge. The eloquence of both George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan in raising these issues says far more than any music critic can. Breaking the Spell of Loneliness doesn’t merely tackle the issues raised, it offers solutions; it offers hope. It’s a moving, thought-provoking work that has relevance for all of us.
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness is released 14/10/16 via Fellside Records
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness Tour
12 October Durham Book Festival
18 October St Georges, Bristol
20 October Liverpool Philharmonic
21 October Live At All Hallows, Leeds
22 October Sheffield Firth Hall
23 October Ludlow Assembly Rooms
4 November Bridport Arts Centre
5 November Berry Theatre, Southampton
3 December Kings Place, London
More details here: