The perennial issue of mixing politics and music rears its sometimes problematic head once again with Levellers‘ first full length in four years, Letters From The Underground.
Mixing pop and politics is nearly always a tough one to judge because there’s not much worse than Bob Geldof or Bono getting on their knackered and thoroughly downtrodden high horses. Lee Ryan of Blue certainly runs them close though, after he proclaimed “Who gives a fuck about New York when elephants are being killed?” after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Ahem.
Thankfully, Levellers are far enough detached from either of the above cases that the thorny issue doesn’t matter; it just wouldn’t be the Levellers without the content being politically and socially charged, would it?
That said, the main problem with political albums such as Letters From The Underground is not that it’s a struggle to believe the veracity of the sentiments expressed, but that those same sentiments have a tendency to be just too bog-standard, and song entitlement such as Burn America, Burn, and Accidental Anarchist do very little to refute this. When an album so overtly political as this is made, bands open themselves up to appearing to be no better than every sixth-form socialist with a guitar in the country.
Musically, Letters From The Underground is an album which rarely differentiates from the opening blows of Cholera Well, a frantic fiddle fiesta in which Mark Chadwick vents his anger on the recent problems in Darfur. Perhaps not that, bog-standard then. There’s enough substance within to satisfy, perhaps only superficially, but this is an album lacking so much in variety it often just sounds like the same song at several speeds; fast, super fast, and meandering.
Letters From The Underground is also done no favours by being seemingly produced to death, infinitely tweaked and mixed; so polished it’s blinding. Letters From The Underground would be a far more encapsulating and rewarding listen had it been even a smidgen rougher round the edges. By no means does it need to be recorded on a four-track tape recorder in some battered garden shed with barely audible vocals.
But when the accompaniment to Chadwick’s calming vocals is indistinguishably low, as on Heart Of The Country, it’s easy to find yourself willing for something other than a violin to jump out of the mix and take prominence; but it seems that is just overly wishful thinking. There’s even supposed to be a bass guitar, somewhere, but there may as well not be, so inaudible it is. It’s just all a bit, well, radio friendly and musically inoffensive.
That is not to say that Letters From The Underground is a complete write off, there’s a lot in there that isn’t politically loaded and issues that the everyman, or indeed woman, can relate to; Death Loves Youth, where a melancholic Chadwick proclaims ‘the good die young and death loves youth, and Before The End an good old fashioned love song. The memorable melodies expressed by Chadwick, drive Eyes Wide and Accidental Anarchist passionately along, and album closer Fight Or Flight is undoubtedly a gem in the rough of an otherwise largely underwhelming effort.