Described by The Irish Times as “the renaissance man of English folk,” Chris Wood is an English singer and writer of folk who works true to its original intention – to talk, and to tell, to join-up, debunk and expose what is happening. A new year is upon us, and as a Brexited, Trumped, migrated, climate-denied 2017 mounts the pavement in our direction, Chris Wood and his ilk are needed more than ever.
True to form, his latest release faces that need head on. So Much To Defend is a collection of stories put to music that pick out the fine lines sketching our lives, pointing out our vulnerabilities (or are they strengths?) and playing out our responses. As it draws us in human form, it treads the cold waters of world events in 2016, throws back connections to our past – our inheritance – and in doing so shines a light on what we hold precious, whether that is a fledgling child or a way of life, the light shines on what we hold dear.
Title track ‘So Much To Defend’ opens with bare acoustic that falls into steady melody. Woods’ vaguely discordant voice serves to help with the ambiguity of what is unfolding. Is this good or bad? The humdrum minutiae of daily life, of cooking sauce and Sunday roasts and “the bloke out back flies a Union Jack/ There’s so much to defend.” My judgemental mind finally susses that the good or the bad isn’t the point. Let’s start asking different questions – who actually is looking out for the small people? Do we need defended from the outside or should we be looking after each other? When a zero-hours contract means you don’t turn on your heat, should we start looking at defending ourselves from the people who are there to protect us?
‘This Love Won’t Let You Fail’ has a different take on what matters. Sung from a father to his daughter (I’ve decided it’s a daughter), the words catch perfectly the first rented room of a recent adult. The bad heating, the dodgy landlady, the lack of job and regular meals. The future is yours and you haven’t realised it yet. Just as you don’t realise the impact that looking so pale and skinny has on your folks, or how much they have your back. The song is softly spoken, barely controlled parental love. But control it they must, for true love here is letting go.
A work by poet A. E. Housman is added ballast in the music that accompanies Wood’s words in ‘1887’, a musical recitation of his poem ‘From Clee to Heaven the Beacon Burns’ (A Shropshire Lad 1). The final lines “Get you the sons your fathers got’/And God will save the Queen.” With this we are drawn to empire and military, an environment that doesn’t necessarily auger well for the people who fought the wars and are called upon to sing heartily the required anthems.
Charles Darwin told us that we have the freedom to believe whatever we choose but “none can dispute the desert of a life lived without love” and this is the standing rock that ‘You May Stand Mute’ flows from. The raw edged essence of ‘Wish You Were Here’ tints the opening bars and Wood’s voice is old, not worn out, but it’s seen a lot. “You may stand mute/While others choose/To praise the stars above” repeats the chorus. And as we debate how, and if, those stars should be praised, phosphorous shells fall on children in faraway countries while long dead Crusaders rest peacefully in tombs beneath English village bells. The long line of responsibility tracing all the way to the Middle East. One of the most beautiful and hard hitting songs I’ve heard in a long time.
Chris Wood’s So Much To Defend puts into focus what makes us matter. He has spied on life and reported back in detail the day-to-day elements that give spirit to the human pixels we are on a census sheet. You don’t need to have achieved greatness to have something to defend. Our ordinary ways of being – our fears, our greed, our habits, our loves, our desire to believe what suits us – we all have them. It’s a common thread that binds us together as humans.
And all of this is crafted into songs that speak straight to the listener. The well-used voice of a musician who has been honing his skills for over 25 years gives notice to the tiny things; the cracks and lows and smooth in his vocals humanise the stuff that doesn’t matter. The music makes it easy, at times makes it beautiful, even when the words are not, as he plays acoustic on “his 1964 Epiphone guitar and his Cornell amp (made in Essex).” Here’s a voice 2017 needs to hear.
Photo: Hugo Morris