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Ben Howarth in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' writes about Sweet Billy Pilgrim's new album, 'Crown and Treaty', which has proved to be an instant classic
How nice it has been to listen to the new (ish) album from Sweet Billy Pilgrim, 'Crown and Treaty', these last few weeks. And I’ve been listening to it a lot.
Rare indeed are those times when a record utterly confounds expectation. I’ve got used to buying albums, having loved the band’s previous work, only to find my standards have become impossibly high and I can’t ever like the new songs as much. It’s a joy when the opposite happens – having merely liked what I’ve heard of Sweet Billy Pilgrim in the past, I’ve fallen completely in love with their new album.
And I don’t seem to be the only one. 'Mojo' have given it one of their ‘Mojo Instant Classic’ badges, 5 gold stars and call it a “stone masterpiece”. The BBC, meanwhile, think it is “quite simply glorious”, while 'All About Jazz' call Sweet Billy Pilgrim “the thinking person’s pop group”. In 2009 'Twice Born Men' got them a nod from the Mercury Music Prize panel (in the ‘band you’ve never heard of who won’t win it’ category), but this time, they will surely be one of the favourites to win.
Their likable singer Tim Elsenburg has emerged as a songwriter of the highest class. He combines a neat turn of phrase with a gift for the big, bold universal sentiment. Rather than batter the listener over the head, the intellectual elements to Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s music reveal themselves to you slowly. It’s always better that way.
'Crown And Treaty' takes Sweet Billy Pilgrim to that nice place where questions of genre are irrelevant. Admittedly, most reviewers make a comparison with Elbow. There are some obvious similarities between the two, with both having waited for success long into their thirties, and consequently writing the kind of songs about friendship and family a recent Brit school graduate simply can’t. Both bands also have a natural, if subtle, musicality. Sweet Billy Pilgrim would be less than half the band they are without the propulsive rhythm section of Anthony Bishop and Alastair Hamer (who, in another life, would have been playing in a funk band), while delicate guitar passages are integral to every track.
But, while on their last record they blended lots of styles, there were clearly folk sections and post-rock sections. Now, they come to a magic career point that only happens to the luckiest bands, when they sound like no-one but themselves (think, for example, of the Beatles from 'Rubber Soul' onwards, Steely Dan with 'Aja', the Smiths with 'Meat is Murder', Radiohead with 'Kid A'.)
It’s worth noting the comparative modesty of the circumstances that led to Sweet Billy Pilgrim being able to make their masterpiece. The Mercury nomination didn’t see the band touring arenas or recording at Abbey Road. But it was enough to secure Elsenburg “a small publishing advance”, allowing him to give up his day-job and write music full time. The band, having previously recorded in a shed at the end of Elsenburg’s garden, this time moved into a bungalow.
There was a time when a band who could boast a Mercury nomination and a five-star review in a national magazine would be spending July rehearsing for the main stages at Reading and V. Instead, they will be playing to a few hundred people in Shepherd’s Bush. Our increasingly fragmented music industry seems to have lost the ability to build overnight fanbases, even for potential classics. But, make no mistake, Sweet Billy Pilgrim have made one of ‘those’ albums – the kind where you get to know every note and hit the play button again as soon as the last track stops.
Spread the word. This one is too good to miss.