Judas! Not really. Chris Wood’s decision to pick up an electric guitar did surprise me, when he first mentioned it at a gig two years ago, but I’m unashamedly A Big Fan of the Kentish folk singer-songwriter – and you have to trust the ones you’re A Big Fan of.
In the intervening years, his love affair with the electric guitar – a 1964 Epiphone connected to a new amp – went on to form the musical basis for Wood’s new album, None The Wiser. Hammond organ is another new addition to Wood’s sound – underscoring his baritone voice and guitar with grainy authority. It’s the Hammond that’s more likely to trouble Wood devotees, incidentally – shades of Procol Harum, even Dire Straits crossed my mind on early listens…
The other key influence on the album seems to have been the lengthy tour Wood undertook last year, supporting Joan Armatrading. This time on the road, allowing him space to reflect on and observe life in the 50 towns and cities on the schedule was, he says, directly responsible for the stories that make up album’s title track.
As a state-of-the-nation address, None The Wiser (the song) is classic Wood – keenly observed, bitingly witty and straight to the point. His observations range from the grumpily trivial (“tiny headphones”), to the troubling-on-several-levels: “Someone’s daughter’s selling phone sex just to pay her student loan back / She does her best to emulate the sound of choking.” Politics and the personal are blended inextricably and unapologetically: as in life.
It is a sign of things to come. Thou Shalt is an angry-sad relation to the title track, for example. A completely different tack to take, however, is a new tune for William Blake’s Jerusalem. But in its way it does the same job. Stripped of Hubert Parry’s triumphal setting, the words take on a new layer of uncertainty. The answer to the poet’s four questions might well be ‘no’, after all.
Wood has always possessed a sentimental streak, and it’s present here too. The Sweetness Game is a middle-aged love song it’s hard not to fall for (even if you’re not in the demographic, as it were), and the album’s only traditional track, The Little Carpenter, is a beautifully told paean to romantic persistence. In between them is A Whole Life Lived – which doesn’t work quite so well. It’s an affectionate, hair-ruffling look at “the exasperating clichés of a young man” – variously inspired by Wood’s son, rapper-collaborator Dizraeli and Wood himself: “I’m listening a young man tell me stuff I know already in the knowledgeable tone that I used to use,” he sings. The song doesn’t get much further than avuncular reproach, and the jolly whistling outro feels very out of place.
Hugh Lupton’s contribution – usually a high point on a Chris Wood album – falls a little short of the genius of One in a Million or Johnny East. Tally of Salt is a heartfelt argument in favour of marriage, which doesn’t leave much for anyone less enamoured with the institution. Wood’s gentle retooling of John Clare’s I Am, however, is sublime. Unusually, he is accompanied solely by piano – a masterstroke. Wood has form with Clare – and if you don’t feel the former understands the latter, you haven’t heard Mad John, from 2007’s superb Trespasser album. In any case, the delivery here is wearily apt – the 18th-century study in alienation is lit perfectly by his calm, intimate delivery.
There’s no space for either of Wood’s Olympic Radio Ballads, disappointingly, but brilliant as Masterpiece and Danced Like on the Grass are, they don’t really fit the album’s theme.
Instead, finale The Wolfless Years talks simply and arrestingly of unexpected silver linings and of things having a natural order. We might not expect such an optimistic farewell, but as usual, Wood is a step or two ahead. He has broken his new ground with care – None The Wiser is idiosyncratic, thoughtful and (and I don’t use this word lightly) essential listening.
None The Wiser is out now – buy it from chriswoodmusic.co.uk and get a Bandcamp download straight away.