Today is the last day of July. Today is also the day the last a July album is released. And let me tell you that these guys are going out with a bang. “The Wight Album” is as sprawling as it is ambitious, and does not shy away from comparisons with its homonymic twin.
It is an album full of darkness, experimentation and attitude. It might in fact be the last great psychedelic album from the original era, as it stretches all the way back to 1968, yet simultaneously is very much of the present.
What connects back and indeed makes it feel like a true psychedelic artefact is the approach to music making, rather than the sound on the surface.
Obviously, the production is much better. Tom Newman who is one of the two remaining core members did after all go on to become one of the key Virgin Records figures, when he together with Richard Branson created the Manor Studio where Mike Oldfield’s unlikely smash hit album Tubular Bells was recorded with Tom’s able help; and he also produced several other key Virgin albums, as well as continued working with Mike Oldfield. Tom still knows his way around a studio, even at the age of 77.
But the music itself still comes across as quite ramshackle, even artless to a degree. Things do not happen in logical order, and conventions seem to be unrecognised rather than broken. Whereas many modern records that recreate analogue sounds from the 60s come across as lifeless and somewhat mechanical, here is a record that breathes and surprises at every step.
There is also at least one track on the album that actually belongs to the iconic 1968 July album era. After having finished what was originally intended to be the final version of “The Wight Album”, Tom one night had a dream in which he was singing one of Pete Cook’s original compositions called “The Game” that was never recorded back in the day. But this dream was unusually lucid in the sense that Tom could still sing the track when he woke up. He immediately called Pete – the main songwriter in July, although he was manoeuvred out of the group for the 1968 recordings – and sang it to him. Pete could not remember it but he found the title in his book of songs, confirming that he had indeed written it. Pete subsequently reconstructed the few parts that Tom had not been able to remember from his dream, and it was added to the album.
What connects “The Wight Album” to the here and now, on the other hand, is very much the perspective on life as experienced by two old men who are getting close to 80. Whereas their brilliant comeback album from 2013, “Resurrection”, aimed at stepping back into their teenage heads and write from there, the perspective this time round is much more grounded in the realities of old age.
Tom – who has been more productive as a songwriter this time than previously with 9 of the 23 songwriting credits – takes what you might call the typical old git stance and largely writes about what has gone wrong in the modern world. But he is also painfully aware of his lifespan nearing its end and offers up his regrets and goodbyes. One touching example that combines both elements is “Love’n’Love” where Tom examines the important relationships of his life and sees that he was not mature enough to keep them going, but instead always ran away.
Pete, on the other hand is bitter, and his anger is as intense as ever a teenager’s anger can be. But whereas Tom looks back on his youthful arrogance with affection, Pete concludes that it was all just hot air that led to nothing. He sees himself as an underachiever and a failure. He never managed to become a rockstar although that was all he ever wanted from life; he didn’t even manage to be on his group’s iconic album and didn’t even get credit for his songs that were on it.
His self-loathing is most visible on tracks like “Special Guy” but in fact underpins most of his writing; it can take ironic turns as on “Truth” where the main character realises that there is an afterlife after all and he is an even bigger failure than even he had imagined because his utter disrespect for such things in this life will doom him in the next.
The album title reflects the fact that it was recorded in Tom’s studio on the Isle of Wight, but is also an obvious homage to the Beatles. Just like their so-called “White Album”, it is a sprawling double set, and also contains a collage intended to play a similar role as “Revolution 9”. Although everything pales in that comparison, it does point to the level of ambition on display here, and the dream of creating something of lasting value at the end of their careers.
Available both on double vinyl, and as part of a CD box set titled “The Complete Recordings” – I suppose to hammer home the point that July is seeing their last summer – I urge you to give it a chance. This is psychedelia from the original era, yet original, vital and new.