Following the release of 1997’s ‘Mouth To Mouth’ – arguably the Levellers’ most commercial album to date – the band found themselves at a career high. That long-player spawned the massive hit single ‘What a Beautiful Day’, which although fell just short of the UK top ten singles chart, became one of their best-known and enduring songs, leading to extensive radio play. As part of the promotion for that single, various TV appearances were also made. The Levellers were arguably at their most visible to the general public. Following a greatest hits package and more touring, Mark, Jeremy and company retreated to concentrate on writing new material.
Their first album of the twenty first century (and their last for China Records), ‘Hello Pig’ was released in September 2000 to a very mixed response. Somewhat of a musical sidestep – if not a complete departure from previous styles at times – the album contained little of the musical frivolity that had backed their social commentary of old. The change in style might be down to wanting to grow and experiment, after all it is in the nature of every band should they not want to stagnate; or perhaps this general darkness could even down to turmoil within the band. Whatever it was, this dour hog wasn’t what most fans wanted. Truth is, while it mightn’t necessarily be a great album in the more traditional Levellers sense, taken on its own merits and approached with an open mind, it’s a record brimming with great ideas – a disc with so much to offer beyond the obvious outwardly moodiness, it’s really not the red-headed stepchild of folk rock that most people would have you believe.
The opening statement should be enough for most people not to dismiss the album out of hand entirely. A simple tune with a fantastic hook, ‘Happy Birthday Revolution’ comes across like the Levellers channelling John Lennon at his most melodic. The vocals are superb; the music even better. The way the track opens with a forlorn fiddle and strident piano starts things well enough, but once the bass and drums enter, bolstering the tune with a very naturalistic strut, it’s magical. Mark Chadwick is in fine voice and as he muses on the world falling apart, there’s a sadness in his tone. The brilliant chorus hook isn’t one of celebration, but more of a sneering statement. Sure, it doesn’t have the jubilance of ‘One Way’, or the accessibility of ‘World Freak Show’, but it’s a brave way to begin a set of songs and what’s more, it really sets the tone for the mixed bag of tunes that follows.
Taking a slight left turn, the almost bluesy ‘Invisible’ plays out like a folk-rock drug haze. Setting out a steady pace, Jeremy’s bass plods a huge riff, which underscored by Charlie’s drums becomes unshakable. The vocal, subjected to several filters, drops in against the slow and rhythmic meandering and to add extra other-worldliness. Within a few bars, this shows itself to be a thoughtful experiment, adding a new style to the Levellers canon…and once the mournful strings and the choir of backing vocals appear, fleshing out the empty spaces, it continues to grow. If you can tap into this obstinate mood, it’s very rewarding – and with Phil Johnstone making a belated appearance with some atonal piano work, it’s also quite unsettling. It’s easy to imagine that at the time of release this would have been the point where some fans started to feel like they were going on a journey that not only were they not quite ready for, but for some, it was a journey they didn’t necessarily want to go on at all. …And if that were the case, then ‘The Weed That Killed Elvis’ surely presented a bloody minded kick in the teeth. By track three, those who were feeling indifferent to these new experiments were quickly shown the door, since ‘Elvis’ works itself into a paranoiac whirl, using distortion, clanking samples and beats to superb effect, ultimately colliding with a challenging and repetitive vocal. If ‘Invisible’ were a haze, then this is an acid flashback from a black day, indeed. First listens suggest that it’s mere filler, perhaps experimentation gone awry, but time spent with the album shows that – even with a lack of melodies and a need to invite the listener in – it becomes pivotal to the dystopian picture scrawled across ‘Hello Pig’s ever-warped canvas.
‘Edge of the World’, meanwhile, is just lovely. From the outset, Simon Friend’s clean acoustic guitar lines join a sparse piano and Chadwick begins to sing aloft. It might have been ten years since ‘A Weapon Called The Word’ at this point, but it’s a voice that defies the passing decade. The addition of hard and deep piano chords against a folky strum gives this tune a really multi-layered effect, while a soaring violin meeting the emotional backdrop almost makes everything sound as if the Levellers are jamming on the instrumental coda from U2’s ‘All I Want Is You’. It’s a hard, hard heart that could hate this – it should have a place among the very best deep album cuts in the Levellers back-catalogue. Following this with a deliberate throwback to ‘Levelling The Land’s ‘Boatman’ and a couple of offerings from 1993’s self-titled record, ‘Do It Again Tomorrow’ finally sweeps away the downbeat and the questioning for something obviously more positive. With a strident fiddle and programmed beats to push forward a catchy hook, this number goes a long way to helping ‘Hello Pig’ find its trotters and everything starts to feel more like the Levellers that so many love. Unlike the previous tracks, there’s nothing hear you won’t have heard before, but it’s still cool. Of particular note is the way Jeremy’s bass dances between the hard fiddle sounds during the chorus and the way a danceable groove cuts in and out of the lyric. Even if ‘Hello Pig’ presents the Levellers somewhere near their lowest musical ebb, then this surely has just enough ebullience to carry them through the dark times. Without missing a beat, ‘Walk Lightly’ keeps the 90s beat but drops back to reveal a few more folky elements. Somewhere between a ‘Zeitgeist’ b-side and a half-remembered melody written by Neil Finn, this is more accessible than some of the previous tracks, but there’s still an off-kilter wooziness at play. The piano chords are understated and it’s very much down to the vocal to carry most of the melodies, but repeated listens uncover some unexpected gold. The multi-layered arrangement is home to some interesting string stabs, but more obviously a jazz inflected guitar, which few people would ever associate with the band.
Beginning the album’s second side (in old money), ‘Voices on The Wind’ threatens to be as obtuse as ‘Invisible’ with its moody vibes and extensive usage of vocal effects, but once again, there’s a great song desperately fighting through the layers of studio trickery. Jonathan’s world of strings add a haunting edge and a great counterpoint every time Mark asks if we “hear the voices carried on the wind” and while this should evoke feelings of maudlin folk tales from Richard Thompson, the effect is more like hearing a 90s psych throwback, complete with Simon chucking out various feedback sounds at the track’s end. Ultimately, what should be one of the album’s best songs is potentially the most frustrating, possibly because it would have sounded much more appealing in a bare bones arrangement. Making up for any disappointment, ‘Sold England’ taps into a solid hybrid of jangling indie sounds and folky leanings and in many ways is classic Levellers. With a lyric looking at the good and bad of old England – the back streets, the pram pushers, smoking kids and musings on weather – there’s something that harks back to ‘Hope St.’, though this time perhaps not as bleak, as the band celebrate social diversity, all before questioning someone’s political indifference that’s followed by a move to the right. A tune guaranteed to get people bouncing at gigs, it should perhaps have been pushed to a more prominent position on the album.
Almost teasing the more purist folkie, ‘Modern Day Tragedy’ stokes up the acoustic guitars and mandolins to create a Fairport-ish mood at first, before sweeping that sideways with a heavy, almost dubby bassline. With a hard vocal to suit, this taps into a similar dark space of the mind as ‘Elvis’ had, but also has the sense to hold on to a more obvious melodic root for the most part. With a truck load of reverb thrown over Jon’s violins, things gradually slide into a challenging and spooky world, but no matter how off-kilter this track gets, there’s something oddly captivating about its increasing ugliness…and then, like an angelic ray of hope from the noise comes ‘Dreams’, a tune that pulls the listener back to normality via a pleasant, almost easy-listening folky melody (with equally pleasant voice). Other Levellers albums may have been content to work that into something more poppy, but this pig’s obtuseness means that when you’re expecting the rousing hook to grab a hold, it doesn’t. Instead, there’s another foray into trip hop loops, dub bass and echoes. The push and the pull is more considered here than on some of the other tracks and it’s always fascinating, but for those looking for bedfellows to ‘One Way’, ‘Saturday To Sunday’ and ‘Dog Train’, once again, it’s time to move on.
For those hoping for acoustic based folk rock and more of a typical Levellers sound, some respite comes during the final trilogy of tracks. ’61 Minutes of Pleading’ finds the band at their most outspoken, with the retelling of the true life events surrounding Lorraine Whiting, a woman who was shot by her husband, who then killed himself. Lorraine bled to death after the police refused to enter her house. Never more was such a tragic and savage lyrical bite set to such a wonderful arrangement. Everything you’ve ever loved about The Levellers is contained within these four minutes and delivered with absolute perfection. The balance between folkiness and grit is considered; the fiddles cut through the harder edges like a clarion call; the way Chadwick’s impassioned solo voice – at once both aching with sadness and setting free an internal anger – rises and joins gang vocals on a hard hitting chorus…it’s a classic piece, no mistaking. If the experimentation of ‘Elvis’ and ‘Voices On The Wind’ were necessary to unleash this angry beauty, then it’s been worthwhile. The short ‘Sun Red Sun’, prominently featuring Chadwick with his acoustic guitar and a sparser percussion, could fit onto pretty much every Levellers album up to this point and while its tried and tested style makes it feel unadventurous in relation to the bulk of ‘Hello Pig’. You might even say it’s a bit slight given its all too close proximity to ’61 Minutes’, but there’s a hearty vocal to rally things along before the more harmonious ‘Gold And Silver’ brings everything to a close with a slow, heartfelt folk tune where an emotive voice calls to the masses, abetted by stomps and handclaps. Eventually swelling to include the obligatory fiddles, there’s an odd climax before a choir of voices accentuates the Englishness of the melody. Finally, the full band pull together on an arrangement that sounds like a lop-sided 60s melody reworked into modern folk sounds. If the front of ‘Hello Pig’ seemed experimental and sometimes confrontational, the end is much calmer, as if attempting to redress the balance…though sadly, for some, it would be too little, too late.
Most long standing bands and artists have albums which divide fan opinion – for example, Lou Reed’s ‘Sally Can’t Dance’, U2’s ‘Pop’, Marillion‘s ‘Radiation’ or Steeleye Span’s ‘Tempted & Tried’ – but there are few that seem as constantly derided as ‘Hello Pig’. If you’re only familiar with the band’s hits and the much lauded ‘Levelling The Land’, take it for a test drive and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be surprised by what you’ll find. Likewise, if you bought it upon release, hated it and subsequently consigned it to the CD shelf, it’s time to take it down, dust it off and give it a more open-minded re-appraisal. It could probably benefit from some careful re-sequencing and it’s not perfect, but, between the cracks and somewhere under the haze, there’s a really interesting album to be (re)discovered.