Political music cannot, as Billy Bragg says, change the world, “but it can change the way you think about the world.” Martha Tilston’s new record Machines of Love and Grace finds its raison d’être – and severe limitations – in doing nothing of the sort.
Instead she presents a curiously tame political album that articulates to music the inner-monologue of most left-leaning Britons. It’s Guardian Headlines: The Musical! but without the food magazine. Tilston’s style is very laid-back, almost lounge, with plaintive voice, finger-picked guitar and the odd bit of violin or Cajon drum. It misses the variety and (desperately) the energy of 2006’s Of Milkmaids and Architects – but replaces it with a sound that seems more consistent and fleshed out. There are no traditional tracks this time (which is a shame because she’s good at them), instead it’s almost all politics, with just one or two love songs to mix things up a bit (what’s a political album without them after all?).
At the core of the album’s themes is the fire-place, frying-pan dilemma of escaping poverty only to confront shallow materialism: “It’s hard these days to keep our tangled hearts clear/you wanna pay the mortgage and the sofa’s in arrears”. Money is merely the grit of corruption: “Where does the money flow from?/Who does it go to?” she asks on the Occupy polemic ‘Wall Street’. These lyrics are sometimes a little trite, sometimes exceptionally sharp and insightful. Often I can’t quite tell which. At her best, such as on the supreme ‘Suburbia’, there is something genuinely arresting and audacious about Tilston: “we dress the same, talk the same, fill our house with the same things” she sings not quite knowing if this should make us feel big and universal or small and identikit.
Often the answers to the big questions are best glimpsed on the periphery – in those places that aren’t in our newspapers every day. Machines of Love and Grace is a fine album, neatly arranged with frequent moments of splendour – but it’s not about to change the world, or even, I’m afraid to say, the way you think it.
Words: Tom Moyser