Album Spotlight: Big Big Train – “English Electric, Part 2”


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Continuing their nostalgic trip through the history of their home country, Big Big Train write with passion, love, and a healthy respect for their ancestors and past. “English Electric, Part 2” is not only the second part of the band’s ode to the past, but also the continuation of their message to any who will listen.

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1. East Coast Racer

As the tender piano notes fade into the first track off of Big Big Train’s “English Electric, Part 2”, you can be sure that you are in for a treat.  This album exudes nostalgia and story-telling, and it is made even more obvious by the fact that each track is a story in and of itself.  So, here we go.

The first track is titled “East Coast Racer”.  “Working every hour they had/ to build the fire/ to make the engine”.  The east coast racer was actually a locomotive that set a new speed record (126 mph) for steam trains on July 3rd, 1938, downhill on a portion of the East Coast Mainline.  This high speed railway is the key to locomotive travel in the eastern portion of Great Britain. Anyways, this train was called the “Mallard”, and it was streamlined for just this purpose.

History tends to focus on the incorrect things sometimes.  Sure, this locomotive set a new speed record, but did this vehicle actually do it?  Sometimes we forget the sweat, tears, and passion that went into building the things we take for granted.  “East Coast Racer” is an ode to those hard-working people that poured themselves into this project.  In essence, aside from the key people that made this dream a reality, this locomotive was a labor of love for an entire community!

“Men as giants/ hammers falling/ the works’ own heartbeat”.  Something extraordinary happens when men pour their hopes, dreams, and passions into something.  That project takes on a life of its own.  It’s not something that can be synthesized.  It’s not something that can be faked.  It’s a true phenomenon that only takes place when mankind really has the heart and soul for something for all the right reasons.

The Mallard is in the history books, and it will always be there.  Why?  Because it has a life of its own which was given to it by the bruised hands, weary minds, and dreaming hearts of its creators.  The sweat, the tears, and the epiphanies of those that had passion for the Mallard—these are the things that Big Big Train wants us to remember.  In the end, the Mallard possesses its own heartbeat: the falling hammers, the thinking minds, and the exhilarated hearts of the community that crafted a machine for the record books.

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2. Swan Hunter

“My dad worked at Swan/ In the Neptune Yard/ Worked the slipways in all weather/ 7:30 start”.  The second track on “EE2” is called “Swan Hunter”.  Now, this name probably doesn’t mean anything to many of us, but Swan Hunter is the name of a ship-building company that built some of the more famous ships in history.  It was a rather important company, though it has been waning of late, and even ceased some of its operations.

Thus, Swan Hunter is the perfect representation of the message that BBT is presenting here.  “Call me up boy/ Sit you down by the fireside spend some time/ All the pride boy/ And the tears/ Tears enough to fill the Tyne”.  The main idea of this song is that of an old man that used to build ships for Swan Hunter.  Now, he’s aged and loves to recount how things “used to be”.  Honestly, don’t we all love to do this?  Anyways, this elderly man (Jim) is in love with the past.  He has such fond memories of the good ol’ days, and he wants nothing more than to share it with his son and grandson and so on.

You see, time changes things.  “Tell me what do you do/ When what you did is gone/ No one throwing you a lifeline/ How do you carry on?”  What can you do when your life’s work begins to disappear?  What can you do when you feel like the times have passed you by, and no one wants to help you?

Jim knows.  “So much larger than life/ From father to son/ We carry it on.”  He’s let go of his nostalgic fervor, and he’s ready simply to pass of what he considers important.  What can we do?  We can instill respect and love for our history into our descendants.  The apathy concerning our past that I see in modern society seriously disturbs me.  It’s a shame that some of the new generation cares nothing for the battles, the work, the artistry, and the stories of our past.

Big Big Train wants us to see that our lives aren’t meaningless as the places and our actions fade.  They will always live on in our stories and our lessons for the next generation.  Give yourself to preserving the past, but also learn to accept that things change.

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3. Worked Out

The third track on “English Electric, Part 2” is one of sadness and change.  “Worked Out” is an ode to the coal miners of the Midlands, a place that BBT loves to write about, as it was featured on three tracks on EE1.  This nostalgic countryside was the site of massive coalfields that are all but gone now.  This major industry helped spur the Industrial Revolution, but now there is little left of it.

“Following on from our fathers and brothers/ into the depths of the lower measures/ light from a distant sun/ plays across the shore/ oceans rise and fall”.  Generations of families worked these lands, or, rather, the land underneath.  “Worked Out” is more specifically about a certain mining town called Birch Coppice.  This small town weathered the changes until 1987 when a fault line caused them to shut down mining operations there.

Can you image the change?  For 150 years there was a mining center to this town; and, suddenly, it was gone.  With it; stability, prosperity, and finances vanished.  The town was forced to cope and find other ways of making a living.  This massive paradigm shift in the town was difficult, but it survived.

Not everything was bad, though.  The dark and dreary countryside of the coal mining industry is now becoming green and healthful again.  As the world around them came back to life, could these working men really despair?  These were men that lived by their risks and their sweat.  They knew better than to lose hope.  So, as the gears stopped turning and the shafts were emptied, these men knew their work was just beginning.  A new life lay ahead of them, and they steeled themselves for the work to be done.

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4. Leopards

This delicate fourth track on “EE2” might possibly be the most complex of all the songs on the album.  Quite simply, “Leopards” is a love song.  But it’s not a sickeningly sweet love song based in some fantasy land.  It’s a real love song that includes love, fear, doubt, and inner struggle.

In a nutshell, this track is about two lovers that had a close relationship that ended years ago.  Per chance, they crossed paths again, and they decided to give their relationship a chance once more.  The man is extremely warm and loving, giving the woman much jewelry and attention.  However, she’s not sure what to think.

“When leopards/ Say they can change/ They don’t mean a single word/ That they say”.  Is this for real?  The woman is wary of giving herself to this man once again.  Can a leopard change his spots?  He left her in the past; and, even though he claims to have regretted it every day, can she really trust that?  Can she afford to give up her heart once again?  She learned to live by herself once, and she’s not sure she can do it again.

These lovers have baggage that is left over from their previous relationship with each other, but as they press forward, they will need to learn to trust.  They will need to learn to give their hearts again.  Commitment.  Sacrifice.  Effort.  They’ve come to realize that their previous attempts at love were flawed in that they were immature, selfish, and destined for failure.  Now.  Now they know the difficulty in building a real relationship, and they are ready to face it together.  “As long as we realise/ That’s all we can do/ (Promise)/ That we’re going to keep on trying/ (Be honest)/ Yes, that’s the way that we’ll pull through/ If you try/ I promise I will keep trying too.  Love, promises, and trust are all they have, and with them they will build a real relationship.

In the end, they’ve already succeeded.  When they decided to hold hands and face their own fears together, they were victorious in that moment.  Can leopards change their spots?  Maybe.  Together.

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5. Keeper of Abbeys

“Keeper of abbeys/ his name was carved in the grey stone/ it was the angel of the north”.  “Keeper of Abbeys” is a work of pure creativity.  It is based on a real experience that one of the band members had while he was visiting northern England.  He came upon a ruined abbey where a man lived by himself, tending to the ruins and stones all around him.

Not knowing the history of the man, the band decided to make it up for this song.  It seems that the keeper was down on his luck.  He had seen better days; but now, perhaps, he needed meaning in his life once again.  He needed someone or someplace that needed him, too.  He needed someone or someplace that was more like himself.

So, he started caring for these ruins.  “He has become the stones;/ weathered to fall/ reaching for the last/ dying ray of light/ in a valley in the north/ where a river runs its course”.  The keeper has found meaning in caring for something that cannot care for itself.  More than that, though, he has found a kindred spirit.  The abbey is lost, alone, and broken.  The keeper, in his own way, is the personification of the abbey itself.  As he works in the pouring rain, you can see the traces of an old love in his eyes.  He has at last found a home.  He has at last found a place to be.   The keeper and the abbey are one.

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6. The Permanent Way

As we near the end of “English Electric, Part 2”, a rather admirable track appears.  “The Permanent Way”, a title taken from an old Victorian expression that means “the finished track and bed of a railway”, is an expression of honor and tribute to the ordinary men and women that have shaped the British countryside.  It is the hinge upon which the entire two-album set swings.

“The line will hold;/ the mark of man/ upon the land;/ the inland navigators/ reaching for the far skies”.  This beautiful, whimsical track is rank with respect and admiration.  The band really does love their past.  And they realize, without a shadow of a doubt, that the normal, every day people are the ones that have shaped the past.  It’s the men and women that want to get their hands dirty that will create something spectacular.  It’s the adventurous, passionate people that will discover something new.  It is always the small people that make the biggest change.

And what does this mean?  Not only does it mean that we need to have a kind of holy, healthy awe for our ancestors, but it also means that we must understand that we are the craftsmen of tomorrow.  We, the little guys, are the ones that will be making the world tomorrow.  It sounds likes a giant responsibility, doesn’t it?  Good.  It should be that way.  We’d best look to our past to learn how to shape our future.

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7. Curator of Butterflies

This delicate finale to the English Electric couplet is truly something to behold.  As my favorite song on this album, it is truly beautiful and breath-taking at times.  It is also a rather deep song, I find.  It is based off of something Blanca Huertas, Curator of Lepidoptera at the Natural History Museum, said in an interview.  She said that her study of butterflies allows so many tales to be told.

“She likes to see/ all the colours of the wings/ beneath the glass./ Then she turns down the light/ to keep them from fading away”.  Butterflies provide so many tales.  They are delicate, frail, and they are gone, oh, so soon.  But they travel like nothing else.  They see much.  They know much.  But, soon enough, they are gone and faded.

You see, this curator knows the fragility of life from watching those glorious butterflies.  Beauty and serenity, gone in a moment.  She herself even ponders the fragility of her own life, as she peers down the cliffs into the sea.  “Looking over the edge/ where the sky meets the waves/ so far out of reach;/ with just one step/ she’d be free/ with one bound/ with one leap”.  All life is beautiful and precious.  But it balances on the edge of knife between prosperity and ruin.  Mortality is very real, and makes this life beautiful, yet sad.  Beautiful because of its experience, and sad because it must end.

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7. Spotlight Conclusion

“English Electric, Part 2” is a fitting conclusion to this masterful pair of albums.  It offers a deeper look at the ordinary people that discover, create, shape the future, or even just ponder mysteries.  These people aren’t the flashy, empty shells of happiness that you seen in celebrities or politicians.  No, these are the people that love life, celebrate love, and work with their own two hands or with their minds.  Life is delicate, though.  We must learn to make the most of it, cherish it along with our past, and uncover the meaning and beauty inherent in it.  Meaning will never be found in things or in places; but, instead, it’s those ordinary people that give meaning to this world.  This world is populated by people; people that will be the most important investments you could ever make.

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