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Date: 02/02/09

At The Top Of The Pyramid

Steve Tilston - "Ziggurat" (Hubris HUB004)

Cover of Steve Tilston's album 'Ziggurat'

Yes, I know: if I were any more obsessed with Steve Tilston, I'd be a stalker. But you can't deny quality when you hear it.

I admit that I've been a bit slow off the mark with this, Steve's twelfth solo album (not counting live, collaborative and compilation releases), and his first collection of new original songs since 2003's Such And Such (reviewed here). I can only plead temporary senility followed by interminable wrestling with Firefox's security settings to enable me to buy the disc online.

Now it's here, and now that I've listened to it a couple of times, what then?

I'll save you waiting until the end by saying it now: this is a magnificent album. Things had gone quiet (apart from the Reaching Back box set a couple of years ago - reviewed here), and it seems that Our Hero was suffering from a case of writer's block. Then, one day, a song came unbidden to his mind and another stream of creativity was released from its reservoir. That song, Madame Muse, appears here.

To start off, however, we have the inevitable reaching back which occurs once you get to a certain time in your life. The Road When I Was Young incorporates a lot of things, but mostly about how Steve started out as a songwriter and performer (I also bought the CD reissue of his first LP An Acoustic Confusion (1971), and listening to them back to back was interesting in that it showed both the contrasts and the common threads through his output).

We then turn to a couple of songs which link the past and the present. A Pretty Penny is a scathing ode to the parasitic money men of our time, complete with the line,

"They push too far, we bail them out."

And this was written before the 'Credit Crunch'. But then he, like many of us, could see where it was all heading.

This meshes in with another song which I feel sure will join that list of Tilston's songs which will be mistaken for a traditional one by and by. King Of The Coiners is about 'King' David Hartley and his gang who operated in West Yorkshire in the late 18th century. English coinage was so unstandardised that the edges of the coins could be clipped off and melted down for new coinage which, although illicit, would nevertheless pass muster.

We now pass to an actual traditional song, and the point where it gets personal for me. I first came across The Rambling Comber in one of Cecil Sharp's collections a few years ago, and sang it to varying degrees of success in the days when I used to do Singers' Nights at Wrexham. I'm delighted that I can now claim some common ground of repertoire with Steve Tilston, even if my version completely lacked the exuberant playing of his take.

Speaking In Tongues tells of the writer's love of England, but of a particular kind of England; the England of people such as Tom Paine, the Levellers and the Lollards, upsetters of the applecarts of conformity and power who - as a direct result - have been all but airbrushed from the official histories. Tilston's attachment to this idea of progressive Englishness frees him from the confines of the hackneyed Empire and all that flag-waving guff, and enables him to embrace the wider Europe and the wider world.

After Summer Rain is a pastoral interlude which is as bright and clear as the scene which it describes.

In-between Years tells of the reflections of Steve's father upon his youth on Merseyside, as he passed on his family anecdotes during his final illness.

This is followed up by another overtly political song. The Spoils Of War is a contemporary driving blues about Iraq, the arrogance and stupidity of those who ordered the war upon it, and the damage it has done not just to those fighting, but to the monuments, history and culture which have been (and are still being) damaged and destroyed by it. Heard alongside, say, Richard Thompson's 'Dad's Gonna Kill Me, nothing much more need be said.

Madame Muse, which I've already mentioned, is the song which broke up the log-jam which had stopped Tilston from writing new material for about two years. The song is in turn resigned and defiant, especially in its final verse, which begins:

"One day I will turn my back
On Madame Muse and send her packing on her way."

There follow two shorter songs, the first (Fairweather Love about the tentative nature of new love) features some very fine slide guitar playing which lends it a 'Deep South' feel, and the second (Jacaranda) is an exuberant evocation of the blue blossoms which filled the view when Steve visited Australia some three or four years ago.

The Devil May Care is a song about someone who had once been a friend of his, but with whom he has long since lost touch, and it asks the question whether their paths would ever cross again. I'm sticking my neck out here, but I can't help wondering if the unnamed person is the recently-deceased John Martyn. I say that because of the last verse, which begins:

"I heard that you've been
under the knife.
An overdose of far too much life.
One foot in the grave..."

(John Martyn's life was one troubled by booze and drug use, and he had to have a leg amputated after a serious infection. Oh well, I'm only guessing...)

The album is rounded off by further evidence of Steve Tilston's talent as an interpreter of the tradition with his rendition of The Fisher Lad Of Whitby, and by the captivating Archipelago (which first featured on the box set), a song for his wife set to a melody taken from a Chopin prelude.

Taken all in all, this is a collection of fine songs sung and played with conviction and verve, and backed, arranged and produced to show them all off to their best advantage. If Such And Such showed that Steve Tilston had reached the peak of his powers, Ziggurat amply demonstrates that he is still at that peak and is likely to remain there.