Justin Sullivan is the lead singer and songwriter of legendary punk/protest/uncategorizable English band New Model Army, which got started in the early 1980s and is still going strong today. If you’re old enough or have an interest in that kind of music, you will no doubt remember and appreciate Sullivan’s songs of rage against the evils of modern life, such as “Stupid Questions,” “51st State” and “Purity.” I’m a very long-time fan of the band, the reason being Sullivan is one of the most intelligent songwriters I’ve ever heard, eloquently making the case for sanity and compassion in a world that all too often lacks it. Politics, the environment, technology, you name it, give this man a topic and he’ll wow you with his incisive take on it. Not only that, but the band is incredible live — audiences positively wilt under Sullivan’s searchlight glare and infectious intensity.
In 2003, however, Sullivan quietly put out a solo album very different from an NMA album. Truth be told, the band’s fans already know that there are hidden pastoral gems on most NMA albums. If you’re railing against the ills of society, there has to be light on the other side of the darkness, and in true British spirit, Sullivan finds it in nature and the natural world. Songs like “Afternoon Song” on The Love of Hopeless Causes and “Nothing Touches” on Thunder and Consolation demonstrate Sullivan’s gift for idealized pastoral imagery and moody acoustic ruminations, respectively. Navigating by the Stars focuses on these gifts.
This is a truly beautiful, inspiring album of introspective, wonderfully arranged acoustic songs that deserved (and deserves) far more attention as one of the best British folk singer-songwriter albums in the history of such items. Sullivan even went to the lengths of acquiring the services of legendary double bassist Danny Thompson, one of the pillars of the British folk revival and accompanist to the Pentangle, Nick Drake and, most famously, John Martyn. This album is up there in my esteem with the best work of this pantheon of Brit-folk greats.
It’s rare to find an album that’s great from start to finish, track one to the end, but this is one of them. The acoustic guitar is used as the base, mostly accompanied by Thompson’s skilled hand on the bass, with tasteful strings by Ty Unwin, ambient synths, subtle electric guitar and percussion. Many of tracks have a nautical theme and a longing for the sea, another classic British trait. Sullivan’s full, melodic but commanding baritone is subdued and introspective on this recording, and just as much as when he shouts, there is an intensity to it that grabs our attention right away in track one, “Twilight Home,” as he reveals his gift for evocative nature imagery: “Now the thick warm cream light fades down into the mist from the sea/Three surfers tiny black specks out across in the great waves/Lanterns of the little town over on the hill, twilight sweet homecoming.” The lazy lope of this song is a perfectly mellow intro to the album.
“Blue Ship” features ambient keyboards (is that a mellotron sound in there?) and a throbbing electric guitar grounding as Sullivan tells the seafaring tale of “The strange brotherhood of the blue ship.”
“Ocean Rising” begins with a nautical weather report that evolves into an insistent pulse like a rolling, stormy sea, “At the edge of the ocean where the beautiful world fades into the grey.”
“Tales of the Road,” powered by a shuffling beat, both laments and celebrates an itinerant life on the fringe of society.
The title track is another atmospheric, ambient folksong featuring some nifty spectral strings. It’s followed by “Sun on Water,” a finger-picked number that could easily fit on any acid folk album from 1971. “Green” is another haunting finger-picking tune, but though it sounds tranquil it’s actually a song from the perspective of a soldier haunted by his experiences.
I haven’t touched on every track, I know (there are 12, after all), but I must mention the urgent “Changing of the Light,” an intensely philosophical song (“pain is what you live with”) featuring more wonderful poetic imagery: “The sky is broken in grey and in silver/The wind blows clean/We watch the shadows chase across the hillside/And out to sea.”
And the gentle psych-folk closer, “Apocalypse Dreams,” goes even deeper. “My world has become an empty place/Of wide open landscapes and weird painted skies/Dawn breaking open in islands of light/And people move as shadows never touching at all/I’ve never been afraid to die” pretty well summarizes the mellow world-weariness of this album’s vibe, the heart’s desire of a soul looking for a quiet place to rest.
The consistency of the mood on this album is awesome to take in. Sullivan on Navigating by the Stars has produced a work on a par with Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left, Sandy Denny’s The North Star Grassman and the Ravens, Richard and Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver and Martyn’s Solid Air — a distinctly British folk singer-songwriter vision that offers melancholy and sorrow but also the seeds of hope and renewal through communion with our natural environment of land and water.
I recommend this work to any thinking person with a love of great songwriting, and I suggest you peruse the following links and discover it for yourself: