Twenty years of leaving and you never knew the reasons
James spent quite a lot of his time in trains during the recording process of The Great Western, moving between homes and recording locations. Traveling in general is a huge part of his life, being a member of a band who are internationally known and do a lot of touring both in their own country as well as over the world, plus his heart being in his home Wales while his current life revolves being in London a lot of the time. Much of The Great Western’s words were apparently written during his numerous train trips, which also inspired the album’s name and artwork. Émigré is the pseudo-title track (The Great Western is namechecked in the opening lines) – although, in an amusing coincidence, it’s also one of the tracks where the lyrics are co-written by his buddy John Niven rather than solely himself.
Émigré is all about passage. There’s naturally the passage of distance, the traveling theme that repeats throughout the lyrics. But even more importantly it’s about the passage of time: hair’s changing colour, time goes on and the big questions of life remain as confusing as ever. But no matter how much time molds us and changes the world around us, there’s always the constants: there may be a new bypass route to go but it takes you to the same old home where you came and decades may roll but The Great Western – the train journey you’ve used all your life – always stays the same. The weary words of a long-traveling man on his way home; some of Great Western’s best words.
It’s then only fitting that it’s also the one of the album’s very best cuts. It all starts out very modest with a low-key verse and the first chorus is a very traditionally TGW-like: some “la la la”s in the background, catchy melodies, all that. All very excellent-like, mind you. The song quietly intensifies during its length and after the second chorus it just kicks the boost in full: the ripping solo and the vocal harmony that accompanies it in launching the song into a new stratosphere, James tearing the hell out of what is in its essentials the same chorus but now with 100% more intensity fired up behind it. One of those endings that grab you by the neck and give you shivers when you hear it. In that sense it’s James’ own If You Tolerate This: a fantastic song that’s turned phenomenal as it reaches its second half.
There’s also a phenomenally pretty acoustic version of the song, performed either in radio or dealt for free on JDB’s official site during the album’s release (memory fuzzy here). It strips down the song to its minimum core: not even in the usual solo acoustic version but emphasising the stripped down format by removing everything but the very basic melody of the verse and rhythm of the chorus. The recording is quiet, low quality and filled with echo which makes the song sound immensely intimate and personal. It’s one dark room, James, you and the song.