Former BBC 2 Folk Singer of the Year Chris Wood is something of a national treasure in folk music circles. An inveterate collaborator, he has appeared alongside Martin Carthy, Oysterband, French fiddler Jean-Francois Vrod and, most notably, melodeon maestro Andy Cutting. He is often seen as a champion of traditional forms of music and dance, but in recent years his own songwriting has come to the fore on a series of excellent albums including Handmade Life, None the Wiser and now So Much to Defend.
Wood’s approach is that of the impassioned troubadour, and his success comes from the way he meshes the personal with the political in a way that is subtle but often astonishing. Like all the best protest singers he humanises his subjects’…
…suffering and joy for maximum emotional impact. The title track, which opens the album, is a case in point. It is a lengthy series of character studies, captured with warmth, wit and a poet’s eye for detail. It is so wide-ranging that the song itself acts almost like a city through which a listener can travel, meeting a huge variety of people along the way. The one thing that links the narratives of these disparate characters is hope in adversity.
This track also marks possibly the first time that Ebbsfleet United Football Club has been mentioned in popular song. This may seem like a slightly obscure choice for a football team, but it is an interesting one – the man in the song is ‘Ebbsfleet till he dies,’ which is a telling turn of phrase given that the football club in question is barely a decade old, and Ebbsfleet as a place does not even exist. It’s an insightful observation on Wood’s part, a way of using apparently mundane detail to track change in its subtlest form, and a comment on the transience of apparently immutable institutions.
This Love Won’t Let You Fail tackles adversity of a more personal type: that very specific kind of loss felt by parents when their children leave home. Wood conjures the imagery of loneliness, melancholy and, again, hope. That it never becomes mawkish is testament to the verbal dexterity of its creator, and also to his musical skill: the gentle acoustic guitar that underpins this and many of the album’s other songs is a lesson in restraint, in how to let a song breathe. Gary Walsh’s Hammond organ somehow gives the song an even greater feeling of space.
The world of lower-league football gets the full treatment on Only afy Friendly, which takes clichéd pitchside talk and turns it upside down to create something surprisingly poignant: a song that both transcends and satirises its subject matter. Once again the characterisation is key. Wood’s forte is putting real human beings in real positions and drawing some kind of universal truth out of those positions.
The Flail is altogether more abstract, but no less impressive: a reminder that history is always constructed from a distance, and not always fair. 1887 continues the historical theme. It is an adaptation of AE Housman’s poem, set to music by Martin Butler, who also provides the piano accompaniment. Its examination of the ambivalence of patriotism makes it a natural choice for Wood, whose own lyrics often knowingly tread the line between localism and internationalism, irony and sincerity, with similar opacity.