Celebrating 30 years of New Model Army’s Thunder and Consolation
When it first emerged in 1980, New Model Army – the Bradford, West Yorkshire rock band, not the seventeenth century Parliamentarian military unit – seemed like the second coming of the Clash.
Righteous of politic, fiery in attack and savage in demeanor, singer/guitarist Justin “Slade the Leveller” Sullivan and his cohorts seemed on their 1984 debut LP Vengeance like a return to the basic political punk of a few years prior, with only a folky undercurrent putting it just a step to the left of its forebears. But the quality Sullivan most shared with the Clash was musical ambition – as good as he was at basic punk rock, it was far too limiting a form for his widescreen aesthetic. Understanding how to connect the storytelling aspects of folk music to the raw power of hard rock in a way that’s unique even now, Sullivan expanded the group’s sound as it signed to EMI for a four-album run. 1985’s No Rest For the Wicked and 1986’s The Ghost of Cain upped the ante for the band as songwriters, arrangers and performers, moving its rock & roll vision from clubs to theaters, in spirit if not in actual deed. By the time the band got to 1989’s Thunder and Consolation, oft considered NMA’s best album, the target seemed to be the back rows of stadiums – the better to disseminate Sullivan’s messages as far and wide as possible.
The first thing to notice about the music on Thunder and Consolation is the sheer aural size of it. Co-produced by NMA and Tom Dowd, whose resumé encompasses everyone from Aretha Franklin and the Bee Gees to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Derek & the Dominos, the record enjoys a huge, spacious sound, as if recorded in an empty cathedral. The trio – guitarist/keyboardist Sullivan, bassist/keyboardist/guitarist Jason Harris and drummer/co-writer/guitarist/bassist Robert Heaton – understands exactly how to use the room it’s been given. Rather than fill every nook and cranny with multiple overdubs of guitar, keys and percussion, like so many artists did in the eighties, the musicians ornament the tracks just enough – an atmospheric synth on the vast “I Love the World,” a subtle sequencer on “225,” violin moaning like a ghost on “Green and Grey” and wailing like a banshee on “Vagabonds.” Sullivan is no six-string virtuoso, understanding that all he needs is a good riff and powerful rhythm work to put the songs across; strong and supple, Harris and Heaton give him exactly the support he needs. Mixer Andy Wallace – soon to be first call after mixing Nirvana’s Nevermind two years later – makes the tracks thick with energy without sacrificing clarity. In terms of sheer sonic impact, Thunder and Consolation packs a powerful punch.
Stepping directly into the wide vistas of this arena rock world, NMA doesn’t fuck around in the song department. Sullivan and Heaton (and sometimes Harris) pen a series of rock anthems, aiming for the skies on nearly every tune. Released as a single, “Stupid Questions” rides a powerful folk rock hook on a journey of sneering defiance. “225” surges forward like a bullet train, its momentum carrying everything relentlessly forward. “Green and Grey” becomes folk rock on a massive scale, the better to ruminate on bitter loss. “Inheritance” strips it all down to just drums, voice and an occasional single note piano, as Sullivan curses his forebears for leaving a mess of a world for his generation to clean up. While maintaining its rock muscle, “Family” establishes a near-funky groove atop which Sullivan describes the need for lonely misfits to find each other. “Vagabonds” revels in Celtic melodies, while “Family Life” simmers in gentler waters. “The Ballad of Bodmin Pill” and “I Love the World” sport the biggest hooks and melodies, practically demanding the cheap seats sing along. “125 mph” ends the original album with a frisky shuffle of self-reliance, asserting “You can die before you get old/But me, I’m going to live forever” without a hint of arrogance. (Future reissues would add several bonus cuts, including the strange, moody “Archway Towers,” the weirdly groovy “Chinese Whispers” and the anthemic “White Coats.”) Sullivan’s political fire remains undimmed, but he also searches new territory, leaning into spirituality, history and personal concerns as much as social commentary. His writing is at its most well-rounded here, a state that would continue going forward.
Recording was fraught with interpersonal tensions, but Sullivan, Harris and Heaton persevered, knowing it was on to something truly special. (Though Harris did leave the group after this.) Good job they did, as they created a landmark in the catalog whose songs fill out New Model Army’s setlist to this day. Three decades on, Thunder and Consolation still has the ability to surprise and amaze.