The press release accompanying Letters From the Underground makes much of The Levellers‘ DIY credentials, and you can’t fault the logic – they were operating as independent agents a couple of decades ago, though they can’t lay claim to being the first (or most successful) to have done so. They had some lucky breaks and tough times, but – credit where it’s due – they’ve worked their arses off to get where they are today.
So it’s interesting to hear The Levellers returning to sonic form on their first album in four years. With a few exceptions, the tracks on Letters From the Underground sound like the band’s early rabble-rousing material, albeit considerably better produced. That similarity is partly down to a return to the simple folk-punk format, but also due to them writing what they’re openly describing as “a consciously political record”.
You could argue successfully that Levellers albums are all inherently political, but the blunt and fiery protest anthems of Weapon Called The Word and Levelling The Land gave way to a more subtle songwriting approach as time went by. Letters From the Underground combines the best of both approaches, its direct subject matter treated with a maturity that was occasionally absent from the early idealisms.
Letters From the Underground gets off to a lively start with the barn-dance fiddle and chanted invective of “The Cholera Well”, a bitter but rousing admission of our complicity in the plight of disease-ravaged developing nations, and keeps up the energy and pace with a couple of more punky pieces before coming to recent single “Before the End”, which – while it has grown on me somewhat since I first heard it – still sticks out like a sore thumb both from this album and everything else The Levellers have ever recorded. Sure, they’ve done lyrical ambiguity before, and they’ve released tunes that weren’t musically very exciting… but a combination of the two makes for a very dull tune.
Things pick up again with the controversy-baiting “Burn America, Burn”, and The Levellers keep banging on the gates of the powers-that-be from here on in, with strident rough-edged vocals and screaming fiddle lines backing up the punkish rhythms. The difference is primarily in point of view; the songs on Letters From the Underground are written from a variety of perspectives that bring the narratives to life, transcending tub-thumping manifesto for more thoughtful investigations – politics made personal, you might say.
Which begs the question – is anyone listening? Long-haul Levellers fans will find Letters From the Underground more than satisfactory both musically and ideologically, but I wonder if their music will reach out to what appears to be a politically apathetic generation in the way their early outings did. Only time will tell – but hell knows we need musicians willing to stand up and point out the elephants in the room, now more than ever.