It’s a deeply unfair position to put any band in, waiting so long to listen to new material. How can any fan fail to build up an unreasonable degree of expectation and an unsurpassable association that makes the sound of THAT favourite album become the only possible sound for the band, ever ?
It’s not quite like the other way around, when the band make you wait – in that situation the irrational, impatient fan in you at least feels as though the artist has brought any disappointment upon themselves. Although in actual fact I have more often found myself making excuses for that long-time-coming album, ascribing flaws to my own unwillingness to let go of halcyon days. Truth has almost always been that the new album just wasn’t as good. Whichever it is, I really haven’t done New Model Army any favours, not having listened to a whole album of theirs since 1989’s ‘Thunder and Consolation’. “What have you been doing ?” you might well ask…
At the very least, I’ve given “Between Dog and Wolf” a fair crack. I’ve had it for a couple of months and there has never really been enough time and space to write this up, until now. Then again, perhaps I’ve just been giving it extra room in the hope that the lightning would eventually strike. It hasn’t, but I think the longer I listen to music, the more I realise that lightning strikes like the aforementioned classic are, and should be, rare. There’s not going to be many bands that manage a lightning strike at all, let alone two or more.
So what is this then, if not a eureka moment ? At 14 songs it’s an album that explores a lot of territory – from the poppier sounds of “Seven Times” (still can’t warm to its cheesy guitars…) to the heavier rock of “Storm Clouds” to the acoustic narrative of “Knievel” to the elegiac folk of “Summer Moors”. I’m still most-enamoured of songs that link more closely to the NMA of my past, but that’s my cross to bear; “March In September”, and “Lean Back And Fall” are very good songs in any event. It’s a work whose scale and variety you should embrace and enjoy; albums of this length are always subject to criticism for a lack of coherence and consistency (isn’t the concept album the very definition of those things ? And look how some of THOSE turned out). But what you might lose on that side you gain in the breadth and depth of the ideas on offer.
Justin Sullivan has taken issue with reviews describing some of the recurring drumming themes as tribal; it probably is a bit lazy to describe them in that way. What do they mean ? Perhaps we should get an ethnomusicologist in to set our terms but I should imagine they’d take pretty strongly against the use of that adjective to make a general point about style. Still, I think we can all see where they were trying to go. There are plenty of songs on here, either in full or in part, where the beats bring to mind less a rock drummer sat behind a full kit and more individuals or groups playing together on single types of drum, more likely handmade than precision-manufactured by Vibe.
The use of multi-layered drums (the “heavy pounding rhythms” as cover artist Joolz Denby would have it) certainly gives songs like “Horsemen” and “Storm Clouds” roots deep into our pasts, to the role of simpler, repetitive rhythms, lower-end and ceaseless like the pulsing of blood, which served religious, military and other cultural purposes. That effect is amplified by some of the backing vocals that appear on the album, rumbling chants and invocations on tracks like “Did You Make It Safe ?”. You can add to that the presence of other percussions (given real space as integral parts of the track) such as the clacking of sticks and the clapping of hands, and also the gentle brushes of brass, all elements that emphasise a more organic way of making music, one that is more basic, more instinctive and, in the case of brass, a set of instruments indelibly linked to the earth and physical labour, reliant on our breath for life.
The songwriting, the lyrical content are exactly what fans have always known to expect from Justin Sullivan – relentless quality featuring breathtaking poetry and lacerating points of view. The stereotyper might think they’ve caught NMA in a net from the off – surely “Horsemen” is exactly the kind of ‘the present and the future are doomed, look what you’re doing to society and the planet’ angst that would enable them to dismiss the band out of hand. But listen closely and I wonder if you can’t hear the band having a bit of fun. There’s no vitriol in the vocal or the music as Sullivan sings “on the far horizon/they’re saddling up the horsemen”. Repeating the line “it must be, it must be” and having that echoed by the backing vocalists, I get the sense of being gently mocked, whether there’s truth in the lines or not…
The narrator of “I Need More Time” talks darkly about being a man “with too many reasons/on a road with too many signs/I play a deck with too many cards/too many games of too many kinds”. Special mention too of Ceri Monger’s bass work here – the simple trio of bounding notes he adds into the verse exponentially ramps up the tension – and the “put him in the hole” backing chorus is a perfect touch. Title track “Between Dog and Wolf” achieves the impressive feat of capturing that exact time, l’heure entre chien et loup, in its atmospheric backing. Sullivan also preserves for us the magic mixture of fantasy, threat, opportunity, in his words: the moment “where the breath is sweeter and the lights are diamond/where the blood runs faster and the taste is stronger” and the visions possible then: “I close my eyes and see wild horses coming from the sky/narcotic dreams and miracles ascending”. Earlier on, you can’t help but join in the wonder at the greatest stuntman who ever lived, his hellish ambition caught in “Knievel”: “there’s something waiting on the other side/crash the gates of heaven wide/I’ll take it now – and have a crack at the angels.”
The link between the poetry and the observation comes for me in the album’s true centrepiece, “Qasr El Nil Bridge”. A story of the uprisings in Egypt, it would be easy to approach this expecting heavy political statements, or a straightforward rendering of the protests in Tahrir Square, but Sullivan is too good for that. This is a story of those uprisings, but it’s a story about the people involved in those events that is rooted in their everyday. We hear about the rich detail of Cairo life, about how “the party boats pass/and the music and lights float away in the darkness”, about “lazy flies, sugar sweet teas/winter-chill, flame-fire tress”, and about how our protester-narrator felt as he gathered, “pushing through the soldiers, smile as wide as ever”. But we are also given hints at the greater significance of the events, and the harshness that sat alongside the celebrations: “we each find wonder in the sky and the mountains/in the hot scalding winds that will come from the desert/hot enough for drying all the blood that has fallen”.
Then, in “Tomorrow Came” some stark truth. Surely a song intended as a powerful reproach to the adults of the last 50-or-more years and their legacy. Those generations have “blasted into space, into the mountains … into the ice”, they “slashed and burned and laid waste to it all/to the glory and the vanity of rock and roll”, and “the seeds planted for the future withered even within our own lifetimes”. It is in its final iteration that it delivers the knockout blow, the unavoidable allegation and desperate plea:
“Tomorrow never comes but tomorrow came
With the new day sun on our ageing skin
As we stand here naked with our children’s hungry eyes upon us
Pray God they’ll forgive us.”
In amongst many of these huge moments and powerful lines, there are some equally devastating small interventions: the quite beautiful way Sullivan sings the line “you were so much in love with her” in the gorgeous “Summer Moors” as brass gently swells beneath him; the added emotional impact of the opening of the second verse of “Lean Back And Fall” provided by a simple keyboard line; the drums of “March in September”; the adoring crowds screaming at the start of “Knievel”; the disappearance of all percussion at the end of “Did You Make It Safe ?”. It’s those sorts of details that keep you coming back for more where more obvious, less-assured records have delivered their straight-ahead thrills and ceased to hold your interest.
This isn’t a perfect album by any means, but it’s heartening that it has been made, given the complexity of the work it contains. I can’t think of anyone else that would or could have made it. It has been an involved process, getting to know these songs, but it has yielded rich rewards.