When the Levellers announced that they were going to release a new acoustic album and that eight of these songs would be reinterpretations of their hit singles including One Way, Exodus and Hope Street, several questions came to mind such as: How come with so many songs across a thirty year career can they possibly choose only eight? Nonetheless there has been much anticipation about We the Collective, not just because this is their first album since Static on the Airwaves (2012); but because many of the new arrangements of these songs (as well as new songs The Shame and Drug Bust McGee) were well received live at The Levellers sold out Camden Roundhouse performance. The question is: Do the studio recordings par well with the live renditions?
We the Collective was always going to be an ambitious project. The band enrolled so many musicians to join them; they simply could not all fit in their own Metway Studio in Brighton. So The Levellers, accompanied by guest musicians went off to Abbey Road Studios to work with John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses) who produced this album. The band “all love” Radiohead’s The Bends and “the way John records everything live”; he was, therefore, the ideal choice.
Exodus opens the album with operatic sounds. It still had the “integrity” of the original. One almost felt as if they were transported back into ancient history and witnessing bible stories in live action. The arrangements were unexpected but nonetheless pleasing. Liberty followed. The new arrangements were the antithesis to the original with a “dysfunctional resemblance to Leonard Cohen’s Stranger Song” allowing additional focus on the poetry: They’re sending the elite, complete with guns. To advertise the way to go. They’re trying to get to me, to take my liberty.
Elation, “fave song” of the band annexes the soul. The use of a female vocalist responding to the lyric “And he heard a voice calling out softly to him” with “Open your heart boy for it needs to be free. And the next time you’re crying come running to me” along with the digeridoo transports the listener to a different realm of spirituality. Similarly, England My Home with its mellower introduction and heart-rending strings towards the final minute of the song makes you feel like you are in a state of mourning reflecting the consequences of global turmoil. The lyrics “You cut your own throat. Then you let it bleed. Misleading your people. From what they all need. Roots are forgotten…” are all too poignant.
Dance Before the Storm is impressively chilled. The jazz and funk fusions not typical of The Levellers sound are warmly welcomed and serve no injustice to the songs powerful lyrics. One Way, (the opening song to Levelling the Land and their 1998 Best Of) is the playout track. It is as immense and pounding as the original favourite despite the absence of guitars and the mellowing out of the chorus first time around. The chorus second time around is all the more significant with the meddling of drums and cacophony of sounds of numerous acoustic instruments.
The bizarre thing about We the Collective is how The Levellers have recreated the punk fuelled energy and passion; even though they have not created punk renditions. Whilst this may be a soundtrack to reminisce over Levellers classics; it is also a soundtrack for changing times.