The West Yorkshire folk-punk great and New Model Army frontman emerges from the pandemic with a brilliant new solo album
Perhaps it will become a new genre of popular music — albums made in isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic. If so, Justin Sullivan’s new solo record Surrounded should deserve to be considered among the best. It’s available digitally on May 28; vinyl and CD formats follow on July 23.
Sullivan is best known as the singer and most visible member of Great Britain’s New Model Army, a band from the West Yorkshire city of Bradford that for decades has been playing music influenced by forceful hard rock, impassioned punk and post-punk and lyrically searching, even tender, singer-songwriter folk.
Over that time span, one that has seen the band’s musical direction and concerns evolve while their idealistic aura holds firm, they have built a devoted audience in the U.K. and throughout Europe. But while there are fans in the U.S. —indeed, fairly large numbers of them in the bigger and more music-conscious cities — New Model Army has never made much impact on these shores.
The year 2020 was scheduled to be a big one for New Model Army, with a major tour in celebration of their 40th anniversary. (The line-up has changed over the years; as of the last album — 2019’s From Here — it also included Ceri Monger on bass, Michael Dean on drums, Dean White on keyboards and guitar, and Marshall Gill on guitar.)
That triumphant-tour plan changed quickly, however, when COVID-19 struck. The touring world shut down. “I remember at the beginning of lockdown, when I was just here on my own in my little flat and talking to somebody on the phone, they said, ‘you’ll probably make a solo album,’” Sullivan recalls, during a Zoom chat. “I said, ‘No, I’ve got no interest in doing that.’ But I just found myself on this sofa with a guitar and started writing, and then things snowballed.”
Surrounded overall has a quiet, breathtaking beauty — like being alone outside, watching the sky and seeing your place up there. The lyrics are often literary but still personal; their striking imagery giving the songs an afterlife. Sullivan is a rugged, naturalistic singer whose low voice can shift from spoken-word monologue to expressive and compassionate — but still slightly rugged — tunefulness. He sounds tough and sensitive, a rare combination. He also has a gift for melody, capable of finding just the right chord change or strong bridge to add satisfying uplift to a ballad.
This is a long album with 16 titles, but individual songs rarely drag. The songs can be rueful yet hopeful, beautiful to hear but still unsettling. The standout like that is “Clean Horizon,” reminiscent of Nick Cave.
Sullivan keeps notebooks to record ideas for songs, usually for New Model Army. “This time it wasn’t a band album, just me with guitar going, ‘I like that chord and this melody …yeah, yeah, yeah. Now what’s it about?’ ” he says of the writing process.
That led to perusing notebooks for his ideas. But besides that, there’s also some looking through his own past on Surrounded. For instance, the song “Ride” recalls a hitchhiking trip with a companion, seeking refuge from a rainstorm:
“Sat there shivering
just watching the rain
I was so in love with all that romantic stuff
an aching whole inside
all my life I’ve been a fool
what a ride, what a ride.”
“In 1975, when I was kid, I left home at 18 and went to work on the underground in London collecting tickets and sweeping platforms,” Sullivan recalls. “I saved up a bit of money and headed off to North America and spent months hitchhiking, which is where that song comes from.
“And I remember the time very well. It was just after the end of Vietnam and after the whole wave of civil rights movement assassinations and the hippy thing, and everybody in America was going…” (Here Sullivan exhales pronouncedly.) “I remember an atmosphere very well of exhaustion. A time of absolute exhaustion.
“I’m 65, man,” he continues. “You do get to the point of looking back on your life and you have stories to tell. But I didn’t want to tell only my own story; there are lots about other people, too. But yes, this is much more autobiographical than most things I’ve done.”
As an example of how he draws from other sources, there’s the eerily compelling short song, “Riptides”:
“In the swimming currents of the morphine
the room fills with ice up to the ceiling
the crystals forming as you’re watching
and return the words you don’t remember
that love is an ocean with riptides
will carry you away to deep water
you thought they were strong but they are stronger
and it will taste like karma.”
As I listened, I thought maybe it was a reference to an addict, someone who had run out of luck trying to get high. But the morphine reference made me wonder — it’s not so much a drug people use for psychological release as much as it’s for easing pain in a hospital setting. Sullivan is giving us a glimpse of something sinister, but what is it? The answer shows how his mind works.
“A friend of mine told me this story of the time he was in the hospital when he was very ill and filled with morphine and had this vision. Then I started talking about ‘love is an ocean with riptides.’ ” He chuckles a bit here. “Yeah, that’s playing into some personal stories.”
Sullivan long has had a restlessly searching side and an interest in nature’s mysteriousness that compares to, say, British environmental artists Andy Goldsworthy and Richard Long. He can also relate observations about nature with more personal quests and experiences. “Never Arriving,” from New Model Army’s From Here, is an excellent example; so, too, is one of the band’s most powerful songs, “Green and Gray” from 1989’s Thunder and Consolation.
VIDEO: New Model Army “Green and Grey” Live 1996
It’s there, too, in Surrounded. In the title song, he confesses that:
“We have come so very far to find what we are seeking
it only lasts a moment, but what a moment it has been
as the snow flies from the farthest reach of Eden
we’re surrounded by all the light that I will ever see.”
“That’s always my obsession going,” Sullivan explains of this interest. “There’s nothing better than that sense of ongoing. I’ve never been very interested in arriving. Arriving is a little death, isn’t it? It’s the setting off that’s the interesting bit.”
This album’s arrangements, while subtle, give the songs sonic depth that adds to their pleasure. Sullivan had made an earlier solo album — 2003’s Navigating by the Stars — which had what he describes as “big arrangements.” Pre-pandemic, he had occasionally done well-received solo shows, just himself with guitar, and people suggested a new solo record should sound have the same kind of bare, essential sound.
“When I first started on this, I didn’t have any thoughts about it,” he says. “I just recorded me singing a song with a guitar. But I got bored with that very quickly. So I sent the songs I recorded to various musicians and they sent me their ideas back. From that, I cobbled together some basic arrangements, still keeping it basically singer-songwriter with guitar, but with some other instrumentation. So I was receiving these contributions through email all last year.”
Subsequently, Sullivan took his tracks to Lee Smith, a producer for the last three New Metal Army albums, to use the received musical contributions in a way that still made the album sound predominately acoustic-based.
The primary contributors are John Thorne on bass, Tom Moth of Florence and the Machine (and brother of New Model Army’s Monger) on harp, and string arrangements from composers Tobias Unterberg, Henning Nugel and Shir-Ran Yinon. All male backing vocals are by Sullivan; female are from a Bradford duo. Sullivan multi-tracked those supporting vocals. “I love the sound of them,” he offers. “I don’t think there’s anything better than people singing, really. Looking back, I should have done it more.”
As I write this, it seems like there might be a return to touring in the offing. For Sullivan, that means starting work on the next New Model Army album and planning for live shows.
“I have a possible solo tour in Germany in June,” Sullivan says. “I’m sure I’ll end up doing some solo shows of some kind through the autumn in some countries, depending on COVID. Will I make it to America? Probably not. What am I doing next year? Don’t know. When will the band be back in action? Don’t know.” (New Model Army’s website does list some upcoming band shows.)
New Model Army has, at least overseas, become a model for how to have a long career in Rock and Roll without being, as Sullivan puts it, “a worldwide famous band.”
As he explains, “We’ve got enough of a fan base and we’ve carried them with us. They’re prepared to go with us to wherever we go now. That’s a fantastic privilege, where we can do what we want when we want in the way we want and not be stuck in some kind of circus. Lucky us.”
But what about the U.S.? New Model Army has toured here before, but it’s been more than a decade. (According to concertarchives.org., their last U.S. visit occurred at Brooklyn’s Bell House in 2010. It was a two-night stand that was the only U.S. part of a “tour” that had them playing weekends at major European cities to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
VIDEO: New Model Army performs “Love Songs” at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NYC 2010
“The difficult thing is that if you’re a European band, there are two ways to ‘break’ America,” Sullivan explains. “One is to tour, tour, tour, tour, tour, tour. It’s a big country and you get in a van and drive, month after month after month. Or, number two, you have so much commercial potential that you’ve got this massive weight of money behind you to help you.
“We don’t have number two and never did,” he says. “So the alternative is to get out and drive. But you also have to bear in mind there are only a certain number of cities in the U.S. where we’ve got a big enough audience to pay for the expense of bringing a band in. So we could strip the band down to three pieces and drive and drive and drive. The problem with that is that we’re old. And also, we need to write songs for the next album.
“We did spend quite a lot of money, time, effort and emotional energy trying to do that (have a U.S. breakthrough) back in the day,” he acknowledges. “And eventually we said that at the end of day we were going to break the band on this. Cause so many British bands have broken themselves trying to do America.
“So is it worth it,” he asks, rhetorically. “No. Should we go to America every now and again and play to people that love the band? Yes, we should and we will hopefully be there at some point.”
But touring America himself, behind his new and excellent solo album Surrounded, might be a possibility. “Solo would be much easier,” he declares. “So the chances of me turning up in America with a guitar and playing some small places? That’s quite likely, I hope.”
So do we.