Written by Clay on July 16, 2014
England Green and England Grey
Reviewed by @autumnrosewell
I’m not a musician and I never will be, but I do not think that there can be any thrill of being human like that experienced by a musician as they watch the abstract process of creating music take form and flourish into the huge, lush beauty of finished piece. Furthermore, I’ve always been aware that I value the music of language and the rhythm of words far more deeply than I can ever appreciate the mathematical music of notes, chords and tones. So it is rare that I listen to an album or an EP and get so lost in it, so completely overwhelmed by the music, that I drift away somewhere and have to haul myself back and see the blank page in front of me to remember that I’m supposed to be finding words that describe what I’m hearing. I’m listening to the new album, England Green and England Grey from Reg Meuross, and it shows him to be very well-deserved indeed of the strings of five-star reviews that hang like fairy-lights across the ‘media’ page of his website
Before it is anything else, this collection of songs is beautiful; fascinatingly lovely and utterly captivating. I don’t think I could ever tire of River Rail and Road and I’ll be there to Love You, two little ballads that nestle among the other songs like little places of rest and refuge. Listening to this album for the first, second and third time and then, slightly obsessively, again and again is like getting entangled in Sweet Briar; this is music that explodes into a thousand pretty flowers to seduce you, and then pricks you all over with tiny thorns to remind you that where there is beauty there is also pain.
Tangled up in all those flowers, is one of the most political albums I’ve ever been sent. But this is social philosophy as it should be: politics expressed with love and emotion, rather than soured into harsh words spat out in anger and frustration. In What would William Morris Say? , which incorporates lines of Morris’ poem ‘The Message of the March Wind’, and in the title track, England Green and England Grey, I think that there shimmers the mind-set that we need to regain in our political life as a nation: one of reflection, of a better understanding of our own history and a greater respect for our landscape. Very clearly, but with vocals that wave over you like falling silk, Reg Meuross effectively argues not only for socialism, but for a political system where dignity is held dear and considered precious, in which we acknowledge the sacrifices made by others in the name of justice, in which the government and the people share resources as a society, and in which we live, not just on the Earth, but with it. And that makes a far more appealing and convincing political manifesto than anything I saw in Westminster at election time.
We live at a time when our children get a deeper understanding of the complexity of right and wrong from watching Star Wars, Harry Potter and Power Rangers than they do from listening to our religious and political leaders, and where we have to make a conscious effort to bring up children to know that politics is relevant to them and not just something that happens in London behind closed doors. I find it deeply troubling too that our society’s leaders seem to have only a small and distorted understanding of our history as a nation – I can’t be the only historian to think that if Tony Blair and before him Anthony Eden had truly understood the violence and hatred bound up in western Christian history, they would never have invaded the Middle East and talked of it as a crusade. So I would venture too to say that this album is an important one; for his careful political expression alone, we should hold this artist in high esteem.
There is something deeply English about England Green and England Grey. It is not only that these songs have their roots in the fertile soil of English history and folk heritage, drawing on the work of William Morris and on the comfortably familiar metre of the English hymn book, but also that they have the quiet introspection and reserve that has been a characteristic of English art and literature for centuries. It has a pastoral quality too; but for me it evokes the jewel-coloured, shadowy and torn landscapes of William Blake and Samuel Palmer, full of religious dread and political turbulance – rather than blushing milkmaids and fuzzily painted hay-wains in a nostalgic England that never really existed. Its Englishness doesn’t make this album quaint and sentimental. Some of our folk music undoubtedly is more reminiscent of Laura Ashley’s cushions than William Blake’s paintings, and for me there is nothing more boring than listening to a folk musician strumming quietly and mumbling something about meadow flowers; but this album is something far more significant. England Green and England Grey serves as a timely reminder that it is not our society’s politicians, journalists and media commentators who will provide the lasting record of our time; it is our musicians, artists and writers whose work will survive and held to be of true value. Sometimes I think that as a society we wander around in a kind of half-light, comforted that we are not able to see the truth about selectively reported, politically-motivated wars or about how other nations see our misshapen belief system and general conduct as a nation. The idea that England Green and England Grey will, at the end of the day, sit above all that chaos and become evidence that England is not what our leaders make it out to be, is indeed a comforting thought.
As I said, I’m not a musician so I can’t put my finger on what alchemy of harmony and form Reg Meuross has created that collides with you and streams through your body like shock, but this is powerfully emotional stuff. As a song writer, he grabs you and whirls you around to music that is exhilarating and uplifting, and he then pulls you in close, looks you straight in the eye and tells a story that burns with heart-ache and pain. Wandering through these songs is not an easy journey; several times I had to pause the CD and pace around the room to pull myself back together. Many of the tracks deal with tricky and uncomfortable modern issues, such as the way we treat people with dementia (Counting my Footsteps to You), of the suffering our society has caused in the not-so-distant past to those with mental health problems (They Changed Her Mind), and the necessity for a simple but defiant act by a politician to be able to honour a suffragette’s moment of courage (Tony Benn’s Tribute to Emily Davison). And yet all these things Reg Meuross offers to us, exquisitely wrapped in pleasing, memorable melodies and intelligent lyrics. Rather than being densely written, the lyrics are so well chosen that, even when you’ve listened a dozen times begin to think that you know this song now, they continue to unfurl themselves, petal by petal, to reveal nuances of narrative and depths of colour that keep on surprising you. The storytelling is superb, and it is his choice of small stories of great humanity, like The Band Played Sweet Marie, about the discovery of the violin given by Maria Robinson to her fiancé, Wallace Hartley, the bandleader of The Titanic, and The Ballad of Flora Sandes, a tribute to the only woman to have served officially as a soldier and later a Captain in the British Army during World War I, that is so effective and so satisfying.
Most musicians I know are used to the occasional odd comparison written in to reviews; in fact I think they’d be disappointed if reviewers didn’t sometimes get carried away in their enthusiasm. I don’t think I’ve yet said anything particularly odd about a musician. So here’s an unjustifiably odd comparison from me to make up for that oversight: the overall impression of Reg Meuross, left behind when the music has been switched off, fits perfectly to Tolkien’s description of the Elves of the Woodland Realm who, he tells us through the words of the awed Hobbits, have great personal beauty and grace but towering strength, and who greet you with peace, joy and gentle love – but love cast deep into shadow by an aura of drowning sadness and desperate loss. If these songs weren’t so painfully well-observed and then I would be describing Reg Meuross’ England as a magical world, lit by the rich green and flickering gold of sunlight falling through leaves. Musically it is certainly as enchantingly magical as folk music can get. But he never lets you get torn away from the rational and fooled into thinking that his world is that fictional rural idyll from which so many of our traditional folk songs spring. This is a portrait of England wearing a flowing mantle of verdant green, but through which you can see seams of decay and grey corrosion creeping up through its veins and up towards its now unsteady heart.
There is a world out there that feels more frighteningly out of control now than it has done for many decades. But while there are artists like Reg Meuross, with his glamoury of words and melodies, his profound love of our history and landscape, and his ability to shed light on the rights and wrongs of our society, there will always be hope – and a little more light.
You can download England Green and England Grey through Reg Meuross’ Website or at this link: http://fromthewhitehouse.bigcartel.com/product/pre-order-the-album-england-green-england-grey-by-reg-meuross
For information about performances you can link to Reg Meuross on Facebook