Former BBC 2 Folk Singer of the Year Chris Wood is something of a national treasure in folk music circles. An inveterate collaborator, he has appeared alongside Martin Carthy, Oysterband, French fiddler Jean-Francois Vrod and, most notably, melodeon maestro Andy Cutting. He is often seen as a champion of traditional forms of music and dance, but in recent years his own songwriting has come to the fore on a series of excellent albums including Handmade Life, None The Wiser and now So Much To Defend.
Wood’s approach is that of the impassioned troubadour, and his success comes from the way he meshes the personal with the political in a way that is subtle but often astonishing. Like all the best protest singers he humanises his subjects’ suffering and joy for maximum emotional impact. The title track, which opens the album, is a case in point. It is a lengthy series of character studies, captured with warmth, wit and a poet’s eye for detail. It is so wide-ranging that the song itself acts almost like a city through which a listener can travel, meeting a huge variety of people along the way. The one thing that links the narratives of these disparate characters is hope in adversity.
This track also marks possibly the first time that Ebbsfleet United Football Club has been mentioned in popular song. This may seem like a slightly obscure choice for a football team, but it is an interesting one – the man in the song is ‘Ebbsfleet till he dies,’ which is a telling turn of phrase given that the football club in question is barely a decade old, and Ebbsfleet as a place does not even exist. It’s an insightful observation on Wood’s part, a way of using apparently mundane detail to track change in its subtlest form, and a comment on the transience of apparently immutable institutions.
This Love Won’t Let You Fail tackles adversity of a more personal type: that very specific kind of loss felt by parents when their children leave home. Wood conjures the imagery of loneliness, melancholy and, again, hope. That it never becomes mawkish is testament to the verbal dexterity of its creator, and also to his musical skill: the gentle acoustic guitar that underpins this and many of the album’s other songs is a lesson in restraint, in how to let a song breathe. Gary Walsh’s Hammond organ somehow gives the song an even greater feeling of space.
The world of lower-league football gets the full treatment on Only A Friendly, which takes clichéd pitchside talk and turns it upside down to create something surprisingly poignant: a song that both transcends and satirises its subject matter. Once again the characterisation is key. Wood’s forte is putting real human beings in real positions and drawing some kind of universal truth out of those positions.
The Flail is altogether more abstract, but no less impressive: a reminder that history is always constructed from a distance, and not always fair. 1887 continues the historical theme. It is an adaptation of AE Housman’s poem, set to music by Martin Butler, who also provides the piano accompaniment. Its examination of the ambivalence of patriotism makes it a natural choice for Wood, whose own lyrics often knowingly tread the line between localism and internationalism, irony and sincerity, with similar opacity. The final three stanzas of Housman’s piece are worth quoting in full:
We pledge in peace by farm and town
The Queen they served in war,
And fire the beacons up and down
The land they perished for.
“God Save the Queen” we living sing,
From height to height ’tis heard;
And with the rest your voices ring,
Lads of the Fifty-third.
Oh, God will save her, fear you not:
Be you the men you’ve been,
Get you the sons your fathers got,
And God will Save the Queen.
While much of this album is about Chris Wood as a solo artist, Strange Cadence is an entirely different beast. A jazzy flugelhorn, courtesy of Justin Mitchell, sails mournfully in and out of a song that, while appearing somewhat lyrically distant at first glance, is actually unnervingly close to the bone in today’s climate of fake news. The Shallow End is similarly loaded: its warnings about the excesses of consumerism are sharpened rather than shrouded by the imagery of childhood: swimming lessons, ‘pruney little fingers’, Bovril.
Wood can also do wry autobiography. In the self-deprecating More Fool Me he satirises his own career and the fate of modern music (and particularly the current fad of filming live music on mobile phones). At the end of it all, though, he recognises that the life music has given him is not a bad one: ‘You might think that after all these years I might not be so keen/but there’s still nothing else I’d rather do.’ His humility is real and engaging.
In 2009 Wood contributed to The Darwin Song Project, an impressive and inventive album on which a variety of artists from the UK and North America collaborated to celebrate the life and work of Charles Darwin. One of Wood’s songs for that record was You May Stand Mute, and he reprises it here. A heartfelt riposte to those who claim that science and atheism are not compatible with love and mystery, it makes for an excellent album closer.
So Much To Defend wears its heart on its sleeve. Wood’s delivery is unhurried and deliberate, his lyrics are unashamedly earnest, and his concerns are moral and humane. In the hands of lesser musicians these themes may come across as overly sentimental, but with Wood the opposite is true. The realism of the descriptive passages is backed up by a genuine passion in the political ones. Even in the conscientious world of folk music, Wood is a significant force for good, both in an ethical sense and a musical one. With So Much To Defend he has created a wise, soulful set of songs that should see him consolidate his place at the top table of British songwriters.
Chris Wood: BBC Radio 2 Folk Show – This Love Won’t Let You Fail
So Much to Defend is released 27th January 2017 via R.U.F Records
Photo Credit: Douglas Robertson