A nicely put together package, with four different yet complementary individual CD sleeves, and also a booklet with an essay which opened my eyes … I certainly would never have guessed that the album was largely bankrolled and financed by Bill Kenwright, theatre impresario and former chairman of Everton FC…
Right away here I have to state two things. Firstly, back in the 1990s, I was a big fan of Big Country – I still consider their 1993 masterpiece album The Buffalo Skinners to be the very best of their career, and throughout the decade their live shows rarely if ever disappointed. They had outgrown and matured beyond their 1980s chart success roots, even though that material remains excellent and continued to form a big part of their live set, and had developed into what I (and many others, as their fanbase in the first half of the decade ran to sold-out large capacity theatres) considered to be an extension and refinement of what made them so good when they first emerged. The second thing I have to confess to, however, is that until the present day I had never heard this 1999 album, their final release before the tragic suicide of leader Stuart Adamson. By 1999, the band had been on something of a partial hiatus, with four years having elapsed since the previous album, 1995’s Why The Long Face, and the show I witnessed on the tour promoting the release of Driving To Damascus was a disappointing one by their high standards. Being unimpressed with the show, and by extension the new material performed, I perhaps rashly assumed the album would be a weak one and never quite got around to picking it up. Thankfully, this exhaustive four-disc reissue is here to right that oversight and allow me to assess what stands, all too sadly, as the last major work by the enormous talent of Stuart Adamson.
The album itself is on the first disc (along with six tracks recorded at a session in Nashville, a place and an influence in which Adamson was increasingly interested), so we will concern ourselves firstly with that. Running to 12 tracks, like many CD releases of that vintage it is a little overlong, and could have benefitted from some judicious editing – trimming it to the strongest nine or ten tracks would have made it leaner and more vibrant. There is also a greater stylistic variation compared to previous albums, something which could be regarded as something of a double edged sword, as on the one hand this is a display of admirable artistic development, and all executed well, it also gives the album a slightly scattergun effect and blunts its impact a little, though it must be said that many fans do rate it very highly for that very reason.
The opening title track, it has to be said, is very much the jewel in the album’s crown. A tale mixing spirituality, divine intervention and dusty-highway film imagery, it rattles along in a classic yet subtly different Big Country style, its big chorus placing one foot in the past and the other firmly in the present. It’s in the very top echelon of the band’s material from anywhere in their catalogue, and one which no Big Country fan, no matter how casual, should be without. The following Dive In To Me, with its slightly lighter and more commercial edge, is another earworm-ready song, and once again ticks all of the Big Country boxes, and the album has started on a real high. There is plenty more good stuff to come as well, with the sprightly Perfect World having that old swagger about it, and Fragile Thing a very well constructed song featuring a duet with Eddi Reader, formerly the voice of Fairground Attraction. The final two tracks on the album, Your Spirit To Me and Grace, are something of a difficult listen in light of Adamson’s later suicide, being both extremely personal songs of spirituality and a tangible yearning for personal peace, and it is hard not to wonder whether he was having something of a difficult battle with faith which later turned sour on him, leading him in part to the dark place he must have gone on to inhabit. Leaving that aside, both are excellent songs, with Your Spirit To Me in particular possessing a shadowy and mysterious quality, with an insistent guitar figure snaking in and out of the track, and the two together make a very powerful ending to the album.
Elsewhere, however, there are some weaker points, which take the overall listen down a little. See You is a rather slight song saved by Adamson’s brilliantly uplifting chorus vocal, while The President Slipped And Fell is a little reminiscent of the band’s other ill-advised foray into American politics, Republican Party Reptile. Devil In The Eye is forgettable, while Trouble The Waters and Bella do little more than mark time pleasantly until those final two tracks come in. Overall, there is a little too much of a shift from the band’s Caledonian roots towards a sort of countrified Americana which is generally done far better by – well – Americans, basically. All of that is not to say that the band should have stuck in the rut of widescreen Highland choruses and guitars evoking the skirl of the bagpipes (The Buffalo Skinners and its somewhat patchier follow-up Why The Long Face managed to hit the middle ground perfectly), but there is too much of a shift all at once to these ears, made all the more frustrating when the band do play to their obvious strengths. Adamson had been spending a lot of time in Nashville, and playing with a country-rock outfit he founded called The Raphaels, and the lines between that influence and the Big Country template perhaps blurred a little. There are a further six bonus tracks recorded in, wouldn’t you know it, Nashville, but the news is good. The four tracks represented from the album are four of its highlights, with the title track, Dive In To Me, Fragile Thing and Perfect World, and all are at least the equal to the album versions, and in the case of Perfect World and Fragile Thing at least, probably superior. Runs through Chance and Look Away are also added, but the latter particularly is a rather weak rendition. A nice addition to the disc however.
This point is where things become increasingly in the area marked ‘for hardcore fans of the album’, with a host of alternative versions and demos coming up. The second disc, however, begins with a series of B-sides, a couple of which are essential and really should have gone onto the album. John Wayne’s Dream did in fact make it onto the US release, which was rechristened with that title, while the oddly named Camp Smedley’s Theme is an uncharacteristic yet superb instrumental, with an almost light prog rock feel to it as it struts along in highly infectious style. Loserville and I Get Hurt are also well worth having and themselves could have added to the album, though again the Americana feel is rather strong. Sleep There Till Dawn and Another Misty Morning are notably weaker, but from there the disc heads into the realm of the completist, with single edits and alternate mixes taking over.
Disc three is probably the least interesting of the four, being mainly made up of fifteen demos and early versions of the whole album and three of the B-sides. Once again, a real fan of the album will want to hear this ‘alternate album’, but otherwise it isn’t really at all essential. There are three other tracks added onto the end, but none are strong enough to have made it onto the album proper. Disc four, meanwhile, is similarly made up of demos and alternative versions, but after the opening five alternative album tracks (Driving To Damascus itself opens both discs, and both work in progress versions are already impressive), the remainder is made up of demos of no less than thirteen rare and unreleased tracks, which gives at least plenty of new material to get one’s teeth into. The downside of this is that these tracks are without exception soaked in that Americana to an even greater extent than the Driving To Damascus album itself. It’s rather like Big Country recording a country-rock album (Big Country And Western, perhaps?), and unless you are receptive to Adamson’s rather forced American singing voice and the downhome-feel of the songs themselves, it might make for a challenging listen.
To sum up the release, there is much to admire here, but also much for the completist only. The main album itself is certainly an enjoyable last hurrah with a few truly excellent tracks, without ever managing to be a truly top-shelf Big Country album, but if you don’t have it, it is certainly well worth your time. The B-sides on the second disc, and a handful of the early versions are also worth having, making around two discs’ worth out of the four which would be likely to get regular play. It’s certainly a nicely put together package, with four different yet complementary individual CD sleeves, and also a booklet with an essay which opened my eyes to the fascinating story about how the album came to be made, and the fallout following its relative commercial failure. I certainly would never have guessed that the album was largely bankrolled and financed by Bill Kenwright, theatre impresario and former chairman of Everton FC, and nor was I aware of the shadow which the activity of The Raphaels and the whole Nashville thing seem to have cast over the record. I’m very glad to have finally put things right and to now have this album, and this is certainly the best way to get it.