christopher james

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Tag: Brooks Williams

Why Does the Nightingale Sing? Review of the new single from State of the Union

The new State of the Union song has dropped. Once more, it feels like a tune that’s been beamed down from a planet where it’s always the end of summer and always 1954. The moon shines and hearts reliably break. Business as usual then, for this most treasured of transatlantic collaborations.

Blessed with a timeless melody, and filled with the great unanswerable questions, Why Does the Nightingale Sing? is an unashamedly romantic offering. After the polished set of covers that made up their last album, this is State of the Union back to doing what they do best – demonstrating their peerless mastery of old school songwriting.  

The instrumentation is simpler than some State of the Union records, which occasionally border on showboating (and when you can play like Brooks Williams, why wouldn’t you?) They’ve clearly taken a decision to let the song stand on its own two feet and sing for its supper.

Unlike the bulk of their material, where one singer takes the lead (generally the song’s lead author) with the other harmonising like a ghost in the next room, this is almost a duet in the traditional sense. Exchanging lines like two seasoned crooners, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra could have made a decent fist of this. Still, it feels marginally closer to Boo Hewerdine’s oeuvre than Brooks’. As ever, it’s a masterclass in songcraft. Like Blake’s Jerusalem, it’s built around a series of questions – but at the core of this song is heartache – ‘Was it a love that went away? Is that why the nightingale sings?’

It sounds a plaintive note of sweet regret that haunts so many of their songs: ‘The sound of a joy that has gone/the sound of being apart.’

Now onto their fourth album, this is a collaboration that only gets more interesting. On the strength of this beguiling balled, the portents are good, and it all augurs well for a splendid album to come.

State of the Union live – Haverhill, 4 May 2012

On paper, Boo Hewerdine and Brooks Williams appear to have little in common. Boo, a quintessential English singer songwriter, is famed for a proper burst of eighties’ stardom as front man of The Bible (you’ll know Graceland – the one that isn’t anything to do with the Mississippi Delta). He is now well on the road to national treasure status, having penned hits for Eddi Reader (The Patience of Angels) and with Chris Difford (on his fine set, The Last Temptation of Chris). He has also been notching up brilliant albums of his own – most notably God Bless the Pretty Ones, where tuneful, heartfelt fare like Geography and Muddy Water are grown up songs about life on the road, wondering if this indeed is any job for a grown up.

Perhaps so he doesn’t need to think so hard about these things, he has teamed up with US acoustic gunslinger Brooks Williams for an album and tour as State of the Union. It’s a loose affair and one that isn’t easy to categorise. The song is at the heart of what they do, and they write good ones – both together and alone. They appear simply to concentrate on well played, occasionally harmonised old fashioned songs that venture in and out of pop, country, jazz, folk and blues, which actually doesn’t leave much else.  

Boo is an affable presence and shambling on in crumpled jeans and shirt he immediately ingratiates himself by dispensing hit The Patience of Angels – which is angelic only in the sense Michael the Archangel might still be considered angelic the morning after a session. The affection and respect he is held in is immediately obvious – justifying the slightly self parodying silver BOO stencilled into the neck of his guitar. He soon introduces Williams – a completely different beast – a pencil thin early fifty something with the elegant remains of his long dark hair. His playing is superb – a mix of dextrous finger picking and expert slide guitar that gives a funky sheen to everything he turns his hand to. Brooks it transpires is also something of a mover – snaking his hips as he plays, obviously in sheer delight; Boo is anchored in comparison. The real revelation however is Brooks’ voice, which is an expressive, mellifluous thing, not unlike James Taylor.

As the two finally come together as State of The Union the magic starts to happen. Their voices interlock and they become the sublime musical expression of the cross-Atlantic special relationship. The songs, supposedly written in just a few days, are surprisingly sturdy things, repleat with hooks and the two back each other up like old cowboys. ‘Darkness’ is the missing some from the O Brother Where Art Thou Soundtrack, a Southern country blues; 23 Skidoo is a melodic delight with some deft picking from Brooks and gentlemanly harmonies. The lyrics are light hearted pokes at mortality (‘All the women and all the men, all you get is three score and ten’). Boo delivers smoky, surprising complex numbers like ‘Distant Memory’ (‘I was listening to Andy Williams all day’) while Brooks’ Union Jack is a delightfully jaunty love letter to London, his wife and his mother-in-law, as it is turns out. Boo’s offer dress up as a pearly queen is declined.

There are substantial, moving songs like Brooks’ Empty House and even a low key gospel sing along in Sweet Honey in the Rocks, where the slightly reluctant audience joins in as gently as a primary school choir. We even get a glimpse of Boo as pop-star as he loses the guitar, clutches the mike on its stand and belts out a dark, slide led version of the Pet Shop Boys’ Rent.    

Boo’s patter is brilliantly surreal throughout (‘This would be our theme song if there was ever a clay-motion film made of State of the Union’ he announces at one point) but Brooks holds his own musically and vocally. The huge difference in their musical DNA is what makes the collaboration so healthy. Whether the Union will dissolve after this album is yet to be seen, but if you simply want great songs, sweetly sung, then seek these guys out while they’re still on the road. Sizzling stuff.