The latest release from BMX Bandits reunites the talented, maverick frontman, Duglas T. Stewart with his former Bandits Jim McCulloch, Norman Blake and Sean Dickson, who together have produced BMX Bandits In Space, which is the most accomplished and best record of the Bandits’ long and influential career.
This the 16th BMX Bandits’ release and is the first time Stewart has written with Dickson and McCulloch in over 20-years. The rekindling of their talents has gilded the quality of the bandits’ songs - writing some of the finest they band has ever produced.
‘There isn’t really a pattern or formula for how BMX Bandits songs are written,’ Duglas T. Stewart explains, ‘And I like it that way.’
‘I think some writers get tied in by habits they have when writing, their hands tend to gravitate to certain shapes and chord progressions on instruments. Because I don’t write at an instrument, as I don’t really play any instruments and don’t understand the rules and mathematics of music, I avoid doing that naturally. When I write a melody it can pretty much go anywhere.
‘For this album the songs were written many different ways. A lot of the songs were written with Jim McCulloch. Jim was an original member of BMX Bandits in 1985 and 1986 but we didn’t really write together then. Sometimes Jim had a musical idea that I would contribute other musical ideas to and lyrics to and sometimes he had some words and a bit of a time and sometimes I had the original musical idea. I think of music in very visual ways, a bit like a soundtrack to little movies in my head or like what Shadow Morton, Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry did with The Shangri-Las. So within a song each musical section will often be a representation of a scene. Musical phrases and sound motifs may represent a character, an emotion, an action or even dialogue that the lyrics doesn’t include.’
Through a series of connected songs, BMX Bandits In Space tells the story of an Astronaut as he drifts in space and time, looking back on the loves of his life.
‘The space in BMX Bandits In Space isn’t the space of Star Wars or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it’s more like the space that’s portrayed in Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running,which starred Bruce Dern, or a bit like a space version of 1964 TV version Robinson Crusoe, scored by Robert Mellin. Mellin’s Crusoe soundtrack for that series was something I kept returning to during the making of BMX Bandits In Space.’
The opening track is the beautiful “Still”, which sets the tone for the album and where Stewart, at times, sounds like a young Willie Nelson.
“Still” - BMX Bandits.
‘The first song that I wrote for this album was “Still”. The melody for the verses and the first line came to me the last time I visited Japan. I kept singing “There’s no need to worry, it’s going to be alright” over and over to myself, trying to reassure myself but somehow I didn’t believe myself.
‘I worked on my idea with the Japanese group Plectrum and when I returned home they sent me a rough version of what they had recorded. I was playing the game Wii music with my son and I loved it and the sounds on it. I could suddenly hear/see the complete story and heard the arrangement for the song with mellotron voices and sounds like the ones on the game. The song set the whole tone and mood and setting for the album. Although the song doesn’t mention space or space travel I felt like the character in this song was hopelessly drifting in space in a little pod like craft with instruments crackling and things shorting around me.’
“Still” sets up the concept of an astronaut or traveler in search of personal, emotional redemption, the tale told through the cycle of songs, incluidng “Beautiful Friend”, where we are told:
“I was alive again, I could smile again.”
Through to “Look At You, Look At Me” and “Listen To Some Music”, with its knowing reference of post pop glories, to “Like The Morning Sun” - with Rachel Allison’s delectable vocal, “Elegant Love”, “You Disappointed Me”, “Fucked Up This Time”, “It’s You”, through to the haunting final refrain of the brilliant “In Space”.
BMX Bandis “In Space”
Duglas explains there are a series of characters who run through the album, appearing and reappearing on different tracks, as he explains:
‘The Lonely Astronaut - dreaming, remembering and misremembering little scenes of love.
‘The Dream Lover - who first appears in the song “Beautiful Friend”, then reappears in “Look at You, Look at Me”, “Like The Morning Sun” and in other places.
‘The Angel - who can wash away my sins and guide me and other lost souls home, sometimes she blurs at the edges with the dream lover character.
‘The Soldier - sent off to the front the day after meeting his ideal girl at a dance. Again this character blurs with the lonely astronaut, with me and with an idealised version of my grandfather.’
The blurring of these characters and songs reveal how close their emotional odyssey in BMX Bandits In Space is to Stewart’s own biography, and the ending with the Astronaut / Soldier traveling across a landscape bathed in light, offers a hopeful redemption.
As Duglas sings on the album:
“It’s a complicated story, like the best ones can be…”
“...could change your life, so let our song begin.”
And I suggest you do just that. For Duglas T. Stewart and his fellow Bandits have brought together the best of their talents to make BMX Bandits In Space a stunning, beautiful and brilliant album, which is top of my list for Album of the Year.
5 stars *****.
Previously on Dangerous Minds