Dance of the Underclass
By Alistair Hulett
IRS, 1992. CD or cassette
Reviewed by Tim Anderson
Alistair Hulett's new solo album demonstrates that he has become one of the finest singer-songwriters in this country.
The album, like Alistair, is intensely political, yet draws its strength from the sensitive and detailed portrayals of individual working-class lives, set both in his native Scotland and in his adopted home, Australia.
Not many people write political songs, and few do it well. The directness of political assertion, and in particular the harshness of critical or left-wing comment, often defeat the empathy or more subtle emotional response looked for in music.
At the same time, the simplicity and repetition demanded by song often work against rich and complex poetry.
Alistair generally overcomes these problems, with his best songs managing to depict social relations behind and through personal lives.
Musically the album is mostly true to its Gaelic roots, of ballads and the more up-tempo militancy of Celtic folk-rock. Alistair's vocal range and clean guitar playing create most of the variation, with backing arrangements minimised on most tracks.
"Among proddy dogs and papes" begins the album with a pacey accordion and guitar backed journey through his own personal and cultural history. The refrain mixes images of the sectarian divisions fostered by the English crown in both Scotland and Ireland, with that of the nationalist hero William Wallace, whose severed head a bloodthirsty English king impaled on London Bridge:
And at night the head of Wallace bled
On solemn floral drapes
And the flower of Scotland bloomed again
Among proddy dogs and papes
If "Yuppietown" retains a link with the Pogues-like freneticism of his former band, Roaring Jack, it is a muted one. Stronger now is the influence of fellow Scot balladeer Dick Gaughan, while the beautiful, sad air and imagery of "Suicide Town" match the craft of Christy Moore.
And where are you now
Mrs Brown's lovely daughter?
"I drowned in the ocean of
God's holy water
All my wee lambs
They were led to the slaughter
And then I just floated away"
His other songs tell of the curse of drink, the Gaelic emigrations caused by land clearance and, closer to home, the deaths in asbestos mines and nuclear weapons testing at Maralinga. Those who've heard gnise his broad red sweep across Australian history, "The swaggies have all waltzed Matilda away":
Does it quicken your heartbeat
To see tar and concrete
Cover the tracks of the old bullock dray
Have you grown so heartless
To christen it progress
When the swaggies have all waltzed Matilda away
Often sensitive, but uncompromising to the end, you could say, as the album ends with the more abstract and overtly Marxist "Dictatorship of Capital", and a more faithful version of "The Internationale" than Billy Bragg delivers. This says a lot about the two approaches: Billy's revised version, in his album of the same name, has it that the Internationale "unites the world in song", while Alistair reminds us that Eugene Potier's original included "We'll shoot the generals on our own side".
The impressive feature of the album is that the potential harshness of uncompromising politics has not prevented Alistair proving himself to be a talented writer and musician, capable of great sensitivity.