Navigating by the Stars – Justin Sullivan

756-Navigating_By_The_Stars_-_Justin_SullivanJustin Sullivan is a man who may need an introduction, as he is not exactly what you would call a household name. He is best known as the front man of the band New Model Army, a powerhouse of angst and energy that burst on the scene in as the dying embers of punk were fading to dust. From the early eighties to the present, NMA were a law unto themselves, delivering an individual brand of rock that established an almost tribal devotion in its followers. Theirs was a street wise down to earth view of everyday life, their songs were filled with passion and emotion and their music had the ability to make you feel. Whether a slow haunting introverted number or a punk frenzied headlong charge, the music always connected with the audience in some way, had the ability to make them experience the message in the song on emotional level, a quality that is sadly lacking in much of today’s music.

 

The band are still working as hard as ever and it is probably a sign of how much time the band takes of Sullivan’s time that it was not until 2003, over twenty years down the road of being the driving force of NMA, that he got around to recording an album in his own name. The songs were written in the aftermath of the September the eleventh, and Sullivan admits that…

 

“Like everyone, it took me quite a while to recover from watching those events and taking in the aftermath. However, strangely, I didn’t feel like writing an angry song. In some ways I’d already written so many songs about September 11th before it happened, that I wanted to do the opposite. In a world where so much anger, cruelty and ugliness had just boiled to the surface, my instinct was to go the other way and to make something beautiful.”

 

So in a way this album is quite a departure from the politically motivated songs associated with his main musical concern, but there is also much that is familiar too. Although the album is very low key, electric instruments at a minimum, it still contains that moving, haunting wash of sound that raises its head on some of the later NMA albums. It is a very organic sound, rich layers of keyboard and string arrangements form the basis of many of the songs, which may surprise many who may associate Sullivan as a guitar oriented musician.

 

The album opens to the violin and guitar blending together in a melancholy wash. But Twilight Home, one of two singles on the album is a song of optimism, light and beauty and sets the pace for what is to follow. Whereas with NMA there was a social or politic message to be gleaned from the songs, here Sullivan is content to be merely poetic, an art which he has mastered very effectively. It is in this opening number that we also meet a common theme of the album, the sea. Again in his own words…

 

“Well, at least half the album is made up of songs about the sea. I have always loved being by, on, or in the ocean. I think it’s partly the sense of infinite space (as I also love deserts and being at the top of mountains, while I don’t really like the closed-in feeling of being in forests) but it’s also a visual thing – the movement and never-ending play of water and light is the most beautiful and inspiring sight that I know. ”

 

It’s a theme that is at the forefront of the next two tracks the folk styled story of Blue Ship and the other single, Ocean Rising. The former is a laid back number sitting comfortably along side the opening track, but the later moves the album into new territory. A rising threat of music is created through a swell of rhythm guitars and a mass of keyboard and string arrangements that build to breaking point in the background to eventually dominate the entire piece. Sentry is a darker and simpler affair, mainly one man and his guitar driving onwards, creating, as Kerrang Magazine described it, music that is both “poignant yet understated” In fact understated is the important factor here, there is a space and restraint that creates an atmosphere and mood that a fuller delivery would fail to capture in quite the same way. The subtle orchestration leaves the voice as the focal point of the songs, and Sullivan has always been someone worth listening to, a grass roots spokesman for the issues of the ordinary man, reflective, worldly wise, slightly weary but full of hope.

 

Tales of the Road is much more in the vein of NMA, small meaningful stories of life on the road, even the pace of the song is different from what has come before, funky guitar licks and a shuffling snare set a groove for the lyrics and a wailing harmonica to hang on. The harmonica is played by regular NMA contributor Mark Feltham and indeed many of the NMA extended family are present on the tracks as well as a number of less than obvious choices, such as music legend Danny Thompson on upright bass and Ty Unwin, a man normally associated with TV and film scores. A life spent travelling is distilled into a few snapshots of the nomadic lifestyle. Travelling is a constant theme here also and even though on the surface there are obvious descriptions of the physical journey, these also seem to be allusions of a mental and maybe even spiritual voyage. A restlessness and longing for home emanates from the album, the man that once wanted to change the world is now content just to head for home with the knowledge that at least he tried and maybe made a difference to some peoples lives.

 

The title track is a wistfully slow and introverted affair; the sea and the endless search for a spiritual resting place form the nature of this number as Sullivan indulges again in his of maritime odyssey. More poetic water related expressions form Sun on Water leads us to Ghost Train a more upbeat guitar lead number with an almost country beat to it, both musically and lyrically its not a million miles away from Johnny Cash, and that’s never a bad thing. There’s a dark quality in both music and the lyric’s that seem to pay homage to that mans work, whether intentionally or not. Green and Home are similar types of song, again mainly Sullivan and his guitar, but it seems to be the lyrical content that are important here and Feltham’s eerie harmonica runs through the later to good effect. The album is rounded off by Changing of the Light and Apocalypse Dreams, the former is a lilting and gentle, poetic and haunting; the later a summation of many of the ideas presented in the songs that come before it, when Sullivan sings “maybe it’s time, to turn this ship around” the pent up weariness seems to spill from him. By the time you reach these last few numbers you may, like me, feel that some of the output has become a bit samey, and the cause may have been better served by dropping a couple of the songs. The more you play the album though the more the songs take on an individuality and although its often difficult for one man and a guitar to make eleven songs sound that different from each other, but he has managed it here and done so with a passion and soul wrenching honesty that you have come to expect. It’s a wonderful album and makes ideal listening for those quiet moments of self-reflection and retreat from the hustle of daily life that we all need to get away from.

 

It’s a collection of songs that I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with and whilst Sullivan hasn’t got the best voice in the world, the slow nature of the songs and the dark and brooding aspect contained in many make his voice right for them. For fans of NMA who want to experience the more reflective side of Sullivan’s writing or for new comers who just want a mellow set of songs to listen to, this album fits the bill. It is poetic without being pompous, mellow without being washy and contains a mix of dark and light throughout. Even in its seemingly darkest moments it is offering hope and optimism and you can never have enough of that.

 

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About Dave Franklin

Musician, scribbler, historian, gnostic, seeker of enlightenment, asker of the wrong questions, delver into the lost archives, fugitive from the law of averages, blogger, quantum spanner, left footed traveller, music journalist, zenarchist, freelance writer, reviewer and gemini. People have woken up to worse.
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