Amy Gwinnett reviews Tom Robinson’s latest offering.
“I know you! You end up on Radio 6, you fall in love with a woman and you have two kids.” This is what Alex Drake, the protagonist of the BBC’s crime series Ashes to Ashes, exclaims to a fictionalised, ‘80s version of Tom Robinson. Certainly Drake, having time-travelled back thirty years, can approach Robinson with amusing dramatic irony when his overt homosexual pride is nostalgically viewed. Nowadays, Tom Robinson is more familiar as a comforting broadcasting voice on BBC 6 and a husband and father – yet this certainly doesn’t mean he isn’t burning with the same punk fire as he ever was. His latest album, Only the Now is an attempt to combine this fire with the mature and elegiac poise of a man who, at 65, has a lot to reflect on.
The album opens with ‘Home in the Morning,’ a song which immediately confronts the controversial subject of his sexuality – the opening line, ‘Hey pretty David, I’m so glad you’ve made it, come sit over here in the light’ may well open up the old speculations as to Robinson’s sexuality . Seemingly, to him it’s perfectly simple; he’s a gay man who happens to be in love with a woman, but this is a concept that has often been beyond the grasp of the British press. As a song, it shows a clear musical progression from the three cord stomp of his ‘2-4-6-8 Motorway’ days, boasting a moving string section and a pretty chorus full of yearning, setting up a lyrical preoccupation with the interplay of past and present that’s returned to throughout the album.
It is also notable that Robinson’s bent for social justice hasn’t left him, as demonstrated on ‘Mighty Sword of Justice’ with the rousing refrain ‘there’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor’. Its style is very Billy Bragg, so it is unsurprising when the man himself pops up and takes a verse – after all, there only three things certain in life, death, taxes and Billy Bragg partaking in all left wing music. The song ‘Risky Business’ also takes a political stance against reckless bankers ruining the economy – Robinson doesn’t have the most nuanced approach to political thought, but his simplicity of expression is very touching and indeed galvanising.
The album is not just contained to politicising, however, and some songs even stray into the realm of the middling ballad. While ‘Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall’ is a very intimate number, the spoken element kind of makes it resemble one of Tom’s radio shows. Songs such as ‘Never Get Old’, ‘In My Life’ and ‘Only the Now’ do blur slightly into one with their treatments of ageing and the lost past – while the nostalgia for youth is touching, arguably the album loses its way, especially as Robinson’s vocals are far more suited to the punk stomper than the winsome ballad. ‘Cry Out’ bridges this gap wonderfully, it’s emotive while still being a fun, catchy number and is definitely one you can imagine the dads getting down to during the mid-afternoon festival slot. Undoubtedly, the weirdest song on the album is ‘Holy Smoke,’ which is about – brace yourself – using Bible pages for rizlas (get the pun?), and which includes both a rap element (not performed by Robinson, thank God) and a voice-over It’s certainly entertaining, but not a good song.
Overall, as a whole album Only the Now is patchy, although heart-warming and inspirational in parts, confusing and just simply dull in others. The songs that deal with the modern age, especially when concerning the injustices of this generation, far outshine those bogged down in reminiscence. For an album called Only the Now, Tom Robinson seems to be struggling to let go of the past.
Only the Now is out now.