Steve Ashley has one of those voices that, to me, has always been instantly recognisable and yet, in searching for words to describe it, I’ve found it hard to characterise. I think of it as “rural” in some vague way, but is that perhaps just because one of my favourites among his songs is Down Among the Hop Poles? There also seems to be plenty of humour in the voice, it sounds as though it could easily break into a chuckle at any time, and sometimes it does. Yet so many of his songs deal with serious matters, be it on a personal, relationships, level or with the ills that beset us as a society.
It’s not always been straightforward to think of Steve as a political songwriter, to place him alongside the likes of Billy Bragg. For one thing, when others have chosen to cover his songs, or tracks have been chosen for compilation albums, the most common picks have been his lyrical, traditionally tinged songs, Fire and Wine the most widely covered. Or commentators have focussed on the seminal rôle he played in the emergence of English folk-rock in the 1970s, as the first ‘voice’ of the Albion Country Band and later with his own bands, Ragged Robin and the various iterations of The Steve Ashley Band. But, since the early 1980s, songs exploring issues from a socialist perspective have been a recurrent element of Steve’s output, alongside the songs that are poetic windows into slices of English life and arrangements that continue to expand the instrumental palette.
With his 2015 album, This Little Game, Steve changed one aspect of this pattern, choosing for the first time to release a truly solo album with arrangements that he describes as “stripped-back”, just vocals and guitar. Another Day follows this trend, the range of instruments now expanded to include mouth organ and whistle, but with Steve still playing all of them. Steve’s lyrics have always been strong enough to stand proud of any arrangement, but when those arrangements are stripped back, it turns a spotlight on both the content and style of those lyrics. Another Day shows beyond doubt that Steve excels in hitting the blend of poetry, melody and meaning that makes songs truly memorable.
The album opens with the titular song, Steve’s vocal light and tinged with good humour as the first verse paints a scene of the dawning of a new day, fresh morning dew, birds taking to the wing, singing their songs anew. The second verse, though equally positive in spirit, has a very different focus, Another voice is in the hall, Another choice is gaining favour. Though his name isn’t mentioned it’s clear that Jeremy Corbyn and the youthful following he has gathered is the source of Steve’s optimism, the song concludes Another day has come our way, With other hopes and other chances. Another game is now in play, Another day is underway.
So, from the outset, Steve has nailed his political colours to the mast, albeit in muted tones. But other songs are far more direct with their political message, There Will Be Pain, austerity for the many, opulence for the few, The Paper Song, every verse neatly characterising the favourite lies of each of our daily newspapers in turn, none escape Steve’s scorn, each should carry a warning This paper carries poison every day. The BBC gets equally scathing treatment in One For The Playlist whilst, in marked contrast, The Land of Love reminds us of all that is good in the NHS and how much we would lose if we don’t fight for its survival. Listen to these songs, read the lyrics in the 12-page booklet that comes with the CD, and you’re left in no doubt that Steve’s view of the world is rooted in socialism. But listening to the songs brings other certainties, these are songs that work musically, melodies linger in your head, phrases stand out for their simple clarity, guitar runs perfectly match lyrics. Equally important is the absence of a couple of qualities such politically loaded songs commonly show, Steve’s songs are not strident and hectoring, they drive home their points without being so obviously angry.
There is another side to the album, songs that take a wistful look back, past loves, past gigs, past colleagues, For Bruce is a fond acapella farewell to friend and one time Fairport Convention drummer Bruce Rowland who died in June 2015. The final four tracks of the album all look back in one way or another, Steve aware of the passage of time, the inevitable loss of some contemporaries and indeed of his own mortality. The Months Go Round is filled with beautifully evocative images from all the months of a thoroughly English year, but finishes And our lives slow down, As the years go round, Till we take our place, All in the ground.
Another Day comes from a musician who has been writing and performing songs of the highest quality for the best part of 50 years, and he thinks these are some of the finest he has produced, I wouldn’t disagree. There is an honesty and an openness that impresses from start to finish and the seed of optimism sown in the first track continues to push out shoots that lighten the mood of the entire album. The final song, Another Shore, reinforces the notion that Steve may feel many of these songs are making his definitive statements, So I’ll say farewell, In case I miss you, And our paths cross no more, I’ll leave this song, With a hope and a wish, That we might meet, Upon another shore. I for one hope that our paths will continue to cross for a good while yet.
Another Day is out today via Market Square
If you’d like a signed copy from Steve in advance, email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.