Regrets, foolish decisions and a general turn for the worse. These are the themes that glue the latest Groovy Uncle album together.
On the face of it, Meanwhile Back in Medieval Britain is a loose collection of songs, created and performed by an ever-growing collective of singers, musicians and songwriters. This, in and of itself, is impressive enough; Glenn Prangnell’s vehicle for sounds-like-the-60s pop is more assured than ever before. But scratch not too deep beneath the surface and you will find a dozen musings on missed opportunities, mistakes and a miasma of misfortune.
The record starts as it means to go on: looking back – and realising how pointless it is: “Don’t look back, look straight ahead/you’ll break your heart and hurt your head” Suzi Chunk sings over a whirlwind of adrenalised soul. For all the big sounds that will lure your feet to the dancefloor, ’20-20 Hindsight’ it’s a self-knowing, self-aware tune with much depth to it. Later in the song comes the confession that:
I screwed up just about everything
I was trying too hard to please
I didn’t know what the future would bring
And I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
And the theme re-emerges in another Suzi Chunk fronted tune, ‘Reading Between the Lines’ with another admission, snarled over a swelling Hammond:
Got a feeling that I messed up
Like I’d not done before
No excuses to be dressed up
You deserve much more.
There’s a further dwelling on the past elsewhere in ‘It Wasn’t Me, It Was Yesterday’. Here Groovy Uncle newcomers, Ani Graves and Rachel Lowrie, duet on themes of lost chances (“Nothing makes me feel as sad/as missing what I never had”) against a guitar and flute combination that recalls much of Bryter Later. But, as with the opener, there’s recognition that nostalgia and looking back solves very little. By the end, there is a resolution to make “up for long lost time/it’s a problem: yours not mine”.
It’s a sentiment shared by the eponymous heroine of ‘Jennifer Knows’. That song’s character represents an antithesis to much of the regret documented elsewhere on the album:
She held the mirror up
to show enough’s enough
she’s off there turning heads
and changing minds.
In other places, the causes of regrets are being lived out in the present tense: the Jon Barker-penned, Prangnell-led ‘Days Like This’, with its pure Macca yelling and hollering, is a study in life-sapping hesitancy and procrastination (“funny how for one so proud/finding out you need convincing”). This is followed, in ‘Lie to You’, with the confession that “I’m full of bad ideas and good intentions”.
A couple of songs later (‘You Think Too Much of Me’, another Barker offering), there’s an observation of squirming and dawdling in a lover: “What’s on my mind concerns me not/it’s you that seems so tied up in knots”.
Meanwhile ‘She’ll Never be Mine’ (written by Andy Morten) sees the song’s protagonist engaged in a futile, regret inducing unrequited love for a girl who “wants a dipshit and a deadbeat and a loser”.
By contrast, the sole appearance of Miss Modus on ‘Good Child’ (a nice little reference to a previous Prangnell band) offers insight into the mistakes and future regrets of a third party.
Against a blistering brass accompaniment, she delivers a typically sassy performance, gunning for a man who is treating his girlfriend badly (“he’s just using you/you’re refusing to know/start acting your age”).
There are two moments on the album, though, that reference a different type of regret, a different set of mistakes and miss-footings.
In ‘Howard Eno’ we are introduced to a “weirdo and a reprobate” who is totally unable to recognise any of his many failings: “only we know that the worst is yet to come”. He is, of course, Donald Trump, a man who’s “got dollars, he’s got Pence/but he’s got no common sense”. Unlike the characters in most of the other album’s songs, it’s everyone else – not the protagonist – who will suffer from his mistakes.
Later, the title track, contributed by Darryl Hartley, turns its attention towards Brexit, with its narrator despairing about the motivation of voters who wanted to “claim [sovereignty] back when it didn’t leave” and fearing for what this might mean in the future:
The borders are closing
And the deal they’re proposing
is the best that we’ll get
But you ain’t see nothing yet.
There is hope though.
Right at the end of the record, another Hartley tune, ‘Astronauts’, sees a heart opening to acknowledge that yes, there will be mistakes in life, but that doesn’t mean it will be the end of the world.
Amid a meandering violin part that heavily references the “love, love, love” motif of The Beatles’ ‘All You Need is Love’, comes one of the most important lines from the whole album:
It might not be that perfect, so let’s try to relax.
And that is all that any of us can do.
Find out more about Groovy Uncle and other bands featuring Glenn Prangnell, Jon Barker and Darryl Hartley in Do it Yourself: a History of Music in Medway (Cultured Llama)