Thunder and Consolation (1989) ****
Communities and the family unit torn apart by the effects of Thatcherism on the working class in '80s Britain, this is a bitter and harrowing testament to its time and place that may be an unpleasant ride but gets under your skin as the type of social protest that begs to be heard, a howl from the underclass that demands to be paid attention to. If that doesn't sound like your idea of a good time or rock'n'roll, then you'd be right - while great, angry rock protest music from the Who to Pulp has often been danceably cathartic, this album is all catharsis and no dancing. The NMA's fourth album finds the band punk in name and attitude only; soundwise (if certainly not attitude-wise) their cinematic, widescope fusion of traditional English folk music and anthemic hard rock sits closer to Jethro Tull than the Clash, heretical as that might sound. From a strictly musical viewpoint, I don't hear a whole of inspirational genius in most of these songs; the hooks and melodies are rather basic, after all. What puts this record across is the power of Heaton and Sullivan's forceful intensity of vision (co-writers of all the songs; former co-writer bassist Morrow had left the band to be replaced by Jason Harris prior to this album, and the change is noticable - no longer are any songs built around busy, throbbing basslines). This is an album constructed by a trio of moderately talented, ordinary men who worked hard with a heartfelt passion on their sleeves, and at least for one album (generally considered their masterpiece) that's enough. The very modesty of their talent perhaps enhances the power of this work, if you look at it a certain way: after all, bog-ordinary working class strivers are the subject of these songs, the no-hopers who get swept under the floorboards as redundant in a Darwinian, cut-throat capitalist economic system.
And even the most ordinary of talents can in a flash of inspiration rise to genius: "Green and Grey," easily the most masterful song of their career. Did I mention the word cinematic? This ballad sweeps over the ears like a movie; perhaps a grim, black & white film rather than technicolor, as Sullivan paints a desolate portrait of yearners staring at photos of tropical paradise while they endure grey English skies, an England where locals have nothing better to do than fill up pubs on Friday nights and mercilessly beat each other senseless to relieve their frustrations and boredom. "Stupid Questions," however, was the lead single, as it's more of a forceful rocker, with Sullivan sneeringly spitting out rather than singing his vocals; the title should be self-explanatory. "Family," comes off as another notable track, capturing the mood of teenage kids on a weekend night roaming the city, "looking for family, looking for tribe," with sympathy yet detached sociological analysis. The kids have to find community in gangs of friends because "Family Life," (an incredibly desolate, musically spare, and bitter ballad) has been sundered; a subject they also address on "Inheritance," which with its plodding chopsticks-notes piano musically approaches Plastic Ono Band era Lennon. The addition of a violinist to the spare rock trio sound gives the album more of a jig-folk feel on certain tracks, notably "Vagabonds," which dances like gypsies around cars on blocks in a Roma trailer park. It's a rare track of upbeat danceability (well, relatively) on an album that's the opposite of any normal person's idea of fun. Cathartic, though? Yes.