I hear you’ve got something to say
The world’s first sampling of solo James. Those who were expecting more of Manics melancholia, with what James being the lead songwriter, were in for a little surprise when the perky handclaps and bright keyboards kicked in. And then there’s the sha-la-la-las of the middle eight…
For me, The Great Western is one of those albums where I rarely listen to it but whenever I decide to it’s always a fresh surprise as to how great the songs sound after all. That’s No Way to Tell a Lie is a prime example of that. That guitar intro is always a bit of a “oh here we go again, familiar tune” moment but the rest of the song always ends up surprising me: age has done nothing but improve it and it sounds fresher nowadays than it ever did. It’s pretty much a perfect example of how to pull off an upbeat guitar pop song and it’s infectiously joyous and bright: the pristine production is nothing but perfectly fitting and really brings out the nuances of those shiny keyboards and powerful drums in the chorus, James’ guitar soars between the verses and those ever-wonderful hand-claps. It’s a proper pop tune, in all the best ways you can mean it.
Although it is one of those songs where the perkiness hides some seriousness as the lyrics are a bit of a stab against organised religion. James attacking the big things right from the start.
If the song was unexpectedly upbeat, the video is a real hoot. Taking inspiration from a Japanese gangster film, James double-stars as the leader of a crime gang as well as his poor victim who gets to take several dips in the ocean while being interrogated. James’ tongue-in-cheek acting, the random Japanese subtitles that pop up from time to time and the wonderful sight of a gang of hardened, tough criminals emotionlessly singing sha-la-las is something to marvel. More of this in the Manics catalogue please!
Guy Massey, the album’s mixer and eventual Manics tour guitarist, did his own mix of the song that was released through a rare promo. It’s faithful to the original version but emphasises the role of the keyboards in the song, layering them all over the song from the very beginning and adding several new parts. It sounds a bit odd to someone’s who loves the original as much as I do but it’s definitely a worthwhile version that I could easily see someone preferring.
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But you gave us more than we need my friend
Back when The Great Western first appeared, An English Gentleman was one of my instant favourites. When it was announced as the second single, I was over the moon because I thought it was one of the best choices to represent the album. When James performing acoustic versions of it in radio sessions became so frequent that it became a running joke in the fandom, I didn’t care because I was just happy the song was getting so much exposure.
And frankly, it’s still impossible to deny its charms. From the instrumentation to the production, the backing vocals of the chorus to the drum-driven stagger of the verses, it’s still a very good song. But as obvious favourites sometimes do, its big hooks that grabbed from the very first listen have now began to loosen up with age. It continues to be one of the most quintessential James solo songs in regards to its style and sound because it really does nutshell The Great Western in so many ways lyrically and musically, but it doesn’t have the same overall punch anymore. There’s nothing bad I can say about it, but at the same time all its great parts are presented in a slightly better way somewhere else on the album. With all that said however, as stated it is still a really good song – and you can’t help but feel those positive shivers in your back whenever the bridge switches to the chorus.
It also starts The Great Western’s lyrical themes of looking back into the past. The English Gentleman in question is Philip Hall, Manics’ old publicist who saw something special in the four young, wild and a bit dodgy lads and gave them a chance when he began to support their musical adventures and eventually came to be a close friend of the band until he passed away in the mid-nineties.
The song’s video where James portrays a film director shooting the puppy love between a young couple gains some most likely very unintentional comedic value from the fact that its scenes end up making James seem like a stalking peeping tom. An association that isn’t really helped with the ending where he mysteriously disappears just as one of the couple glances at him.
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We got directions but nowhere to go
The sunset of The Great Western is coloured with a lush, warm keyboard palette. Soft ambient waves enrich a calm backbeat. Rich textures decorate the rest-seeking, weary tone of the song. The long journey’s over, the wanderlust has ran out, it’s time to sit back and reflect on what you saw.
One of the best songs on the album lies in its closer that at a quick glance looks much lesser than it is. It’s the perfect end-of-the-album lullaby that brings the final chapter to close with a musical reflection on everything that was on the album and bids the listener a gentle farewell. It’s a productional masterpiece filled with gorgeous lush tones and beautiful warmth. The atmosphere is immaculate. The only thing breaking the pastoral tranquility is the truly terribly redundant lyrical couplet “which way to Kyffin, we don’t know / we don’t know which way to go” that manages to hit my ears in an unpleasant way each and every time – shame, because otherwise the lyrics of the song are one of the album’s best, perfectly working with the lyrics to bring that satisfying feeling of resignation from the world’s weary worries.
The Kyffin referred to in the title is Kyffin Williams, a Welsh painter who the song is dedicated to.
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Now the only payback is that everybody wants to know
It’s somewhat only logical that on an album that is heavily obsessed with backing vocals and supporting harmonies, at some point the creator decides that just layered vocal tracks or friends aren’t enough and decides to drag a full choir into the studio.
The calm-paced, heavily rhythm-driven gospel-influenced song holds the choir as its star ingredient and quite frankly, it wouldn’t really be much of an interesting piece of music without it. It’s a bit of a simple slog that doesn’t much muck about with instruments or James’ vocal acrobatics – it simply moves onward with a steady pace for its short length. But then you add the choir and all of a sudden it breathes a whole new life and becomes a Rather Really Good song. It’s not much of a spotlight track – I don’t think anyone thinks of this song first when they think of The Great Western – but it holds its important place in the album’s second, more personal half. It just wouldn’t be the same without this as its penultimate moment.
It’s a very interesting song lyrically as well, as it’s the first ever James-penned track about Richey. Whilst Richey songs are numerous enough in the Manics catalogue that it’s become somewhat of a running joke that everything is about Richey, this is the first time James gets to talk about it rather than Wire. There’s a clear difference between the two: while Wire treats Richey in an almost enamoured light and holds his legacy up not only as a friend but also as almost romantic semi-deification, James holds none of the latter. It’s more emotionally reserved than Wire’s words. It’s a mix of confusion and what-if and while he never says it directly, the feeling of longing and missing a dear friend is always there in the background of the words. While Wire chooses to treat Richey as more than a mere person in his lyrics (which isn’t a bad thing mind you), James’ approach is more about just quietly thinking about an old friend long gone.
Musically it may not be much of a standout, but it’s emotionally a very important part of James’ solo material and conceptually a big part of the album’s themes on reflecting on the past.
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There’s some things I just can’t show
The most popular fan-favourite on The Great Western, the song that everyone feels could have been massive and with which many express desire that it should have been a Manics track so it could still be performed live.
You know, it deserves all the accolades.
It’s the only genuine ballad of The Great Western and it’s a humongous one. It checks all the traditional trademarks of a big rock ballad, from a gentle intro to a gradual build-up, from a roaring solo to a chorus that feels like it could tear the earth with its grand size. And just like a proper rock ballad, it sends down those pleasant shivers down your spine. It’s a classic Bradfield power display – it wouldn’t be as powerful if it wasn’t for his strong singing throwing an emotional lifeline to the listener.
It also serves as the emotional turning point of The Great Western. Before it the album was a good pop/rock album, but starting from Still a Long Way to Go the album begins to turn the music a bit serious, cranks up the resonance, slows the tempo, seems to take on a bit more personal subjects, and so forth. It’s the album’s emotional heart.
One of the very, very best songs on James’ solo adventures.
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I guess it’s just an old neighbourhood thing
As the story goes, once upon a time in Bradders’ past he lived nearby an old woman he was in friendly, chatty terms with. Apparently she was a very religious lady but never had the habit of praying. This was because, in her own words, she was in good enough terms with God to know that he knows her name anyway and there’s no point in bothering him with additional messaging. And that’s the story behind Say Hello to the Pope as well, seemingly set after the old lady had passed away. Much like The Great Western, it too is about reminiscing the past.
But because it’s on The Great Western, the said reminiscing isn’t a sad ordeal. Say Hello to the Pope is a joyous frolic and a wink-in-the-eye farewell to a great woman Bradders had the delight to know. It’s a great bundle of joy that’s got a great big warm smile on its face as it shuffles around in one of the most upbeat ways of James’ career. On the album’s otherwise more somber and serious second half it’s the song that reminds us of the big pop tunes of the first half, and actually betters most of them.
The most delightful moment has to be, like so often on The Great Western, the backing vocal parade in the chorus. Maybe it’s just the backing vocal nutter in me but the choir of “say hello!” just gets me every time and puts a smile on my face if the song as a whole hasn’t done it by the time the first chorus hits.
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There’s always something in my mind that I should have done
Some albums have tracks that don’t really make much of an effort to stand up screaming and aren’t the ones people remember when reminiscing about the album but which still make an enjoyable effort to appeal to the listener and thus do not get billed into the filler bin. Romeo is one of those songs. It’s more or less a bog-standard solo James song, albeit one with a slightly emphasised role with the keyboards due to its organ-tap driven verses, but the choruses break out to the same tune that becomes undoubtedly familiar with everyone who familiarises himself with the album and the tracks that belong to its respective era.
This originally almost caused this text to have a slightly more give-or-take feel but the mandatory repeated listenings of the song before writing of the entry came to proof that it’s still a fairly good track despite its slightly underwhelming nature on record. Perhaps it’s simply because it’s surrounded by several far stronger tracks on the 11-song album and as a result in such company it comes off as a bit of a pit stop before the journey properly continues. Outside the album context, when treating Romeo as its own individual moment, you come to the obvious realisation that a standard Bradders song still carries all the standard tricks that make The Great Western a highly enjoyable listen and thus you can’t really dismiss it.
Somewhat of an underdog but enjoyable nonetheless.
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