“Pantheon,” the fifth song on the album, begins with an ache and a longing. The swells of the strings are so fierce that one naturally wonders if we’ve reached a breaking point. Fear not, the swells subside, and truly progressive sounds emerge, making this instrumental nothing but a stunner. After all, the song is about the gods. What words could really suffice to explain the multitude of gods and personalities and heroes and manipulations and sacrifices? “Pantheon” is nothing if not eccentric and quirky. What makes this song so amazing—beyond just the stunning integration of a multitude of instruments (imagine Yes’s “Leave It,” but with an interplay for instruments rather than vocals)—is one little craziness. The brass in the song is used for rhythm.
As the fifth track, “Pantheon” serves the album and the listener particularly well, giving us the time and leisure to reflect upon all that we’ve seen and heard in the tour thus far. It is, as the Jews would say, a Selah, a pause.
And, not too surprisingly, given that we have gone as far back into the past as we intended, Big Big Train turns from the pagan to the Christian, and we begin our journey back to the present with song six, “Theodora in Green and Gold.” The second song by the band about a Christian saint (the first being “Kingmaker”), “Theodora” explains—through biography as well as extant art—a patron of the beautiful. In the glass art, itself, resides the soul not only of Theodora, but of the artist who captured her through splinters of light and colors of time and shades of meaning.
Though one might understandably be tempted to claim that the band has jumped forward to the late sixteenth century with track 7, “Ariel,” and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she or he would be wrong, as I was originally. Not until I heard the words “opium dream,” did I realize how wrong I was. Yes, this is about The Tempest, but it’s about The Tempest as understood by a nineteenth-century romantic. Perhaps the most complex of all nine tracks, this one employs everything from Spaghetti Western guitars to impressionist-era keyboards. The theme, overall, is that our dreams guide us and might, from time to time, take us farther than even our physical travels.
At this point, I must note that while I always love Longdon’s vocals, it’s on this song—and the very theatrics of it—that Longdon’s vocals not only shine but reveal that he is one or two finest living vocalists in the current world of rock.
The penultimate track, “Voyager,” begins, not surprisingly, with a radio transmission. Almost as long as “Ariel,” “Voyager” considers the travels of anyone leading “further out toward distant shorelines.” Yes, while this song could be about the actual NASA probe, it equally applies to Magellan, Lewis and Clark, Shackleton, Yeager, and Armstrong. Truly, this track celebrates all that is greatest in the human spirit.
The final song on the album, “Homesong,” has a . . . well, a homey feel. Butterflies, hedgerows, willows, river banks. Tea and history. “Church bells carry with the breeze, a song to call you home.” Much to my surprise, parts of this last glorious song seem to have an early Supertramp quality, not something I expected. Whether we have returned back to our home here in this world, or whether we have transcended to the home of the next world is unclear.
We only know that “we are home now.”
True to form, the song is melancholic but emotionally satisfying. There and back again, our return is well earned. We have run the race, and we have fought the good fight.
The final noise is one of birds, insects, and running water.
England or Heaven?
Either way, it’s good and right and true and beautiful.
There is no way one could get through this album without the glorious release of both emotion and the disciplined strength of thought. As with so much of what Big Big Train does, this album demands all of us. And, it has earned it, as the band has given all of themselves. They never talk down to us, near us, or around us. Instead, as they have always done, they invite us into the conversation as equals. Indeed, one can feel with every note and every word the sheer love that the members of the band have for one another. That love—whether where two or three have gathered or where a couple of like minded folks start a college or a business or where a couple of pipe-smoking dons tell each other days of Númenor—is the love that moves the very world.
Once again, the seven members of Big Big Train have given us a gift beyond all calculation and measure.
It’s time to get out the fine stationary and write our thank you notes.