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Driving To Damascus, an album by my all time favourite band, Big Country, was released in 1999. It was their eighth studio album and was also sadly to be their last. During the tour to promote the album, the band had decided to take a break and their final tour dates were known as 'The Final Fling'. However, this was not meant to signal the end of Big Country, as all members and frontman Stuart Adamson only ever intended to put the band on the back burner for a while.
Driving To Damascus is a strong album, influenced by Adamson's Nashville experiences. Although the Scottish band always enjoyed a cult following, they never seemed to get the credit they deserved from the music press after their highly praised debut album 'The Crossing' back in 1983. The tide appeared to be turning once more however as Damascus was receiving some good reviews and it seemed that Big Country were once again finding favour with the critics.
Driving To Damascus
Dive Into Me
The President Slipped And Fell
Devil In The Eye
Trouble The Waters
Your Spirit To Me
This album saw Stuart Adamson collaberate with Ray Davies of The Kinks as they wrote two tracks together : 'Somebody Else' and 'Devil In The Eye'. The two had became friends when the band joined him on stage in the pouring rain in Glastonbury in 1997.
Stuart said of writing with Ray, that they pushed each other into areas they would not normally go. Nowhere is this more evident than the lyrical content of these two tracks. Whilst the sound is unmistakably Big Country, the lyrics explored a new area of writing for Stuart, as the pair take a bitter swipe at the fall out from a relationship break up : " You can keep the wok, cos it matches the satellite dish. You can keep that crew neck sweater I wore to the Talking Heads gig" proclaims Stuart on 'Somebody Else' as he sings of moving on and leaving behind who he used to be, whilst managing to deliver both the irony and humour of the situation.
It's a good track, as is 'Devil In The Eye' which is another lyrical diversion, and I always have a wry smile when I listen to the lyrics of Somebody Else, but they are a world away from the lyrics Stuart penned over the years. He has practically wrote the soundtrack to my life in one way or another. His lyrics have moved me countless times and helped me through some difficult periods of my life.
'Your Spirit To Me' is my favourite track on the album. Written by Stuart alone, it is no wonder that many felt it was autobiographical given his personal problems around that time. It is a slow, beautifully melodic song and it would be difficult not to be moved by its content. The opening line delivers a poignant message: "There's only seconds of your life, that really count for anything. All the rest is killing time, waiting for a train."
More poignancy follows with 'Fragile Thing' and 'See You'. The former being a track which musically seems very inspired by Stuart's visits to Nashville. More upbeat and with a memorable chorus, it was an obvious single choice and it was indeed the first single taken from the album. It also featured Eddi Reader on backing vocals. Stuart described her as one of the finest singers he had ever come across and her voice blends well with Stuart here. Eddi also sang backing vocals on 'See You', 'Grace' and 'Bella'.
'See You' is another of my favourites. Yet again, written by Adamson alone, you do wonder just how personal a lyric this was, as it does seem that its content is something you would have to be experiencing yourself to write such a lyric. The words "See You" end each verse of this bittersweet song.
Stuart was not religious, but he was spiritual and there is an underlying spiritual feel on this album. The opening title track is a somewhat modern take on the conversion of St Paul on the road to Damascus and is just pure genius. Apart from the lyrics, this is a strong opening track, featuring rousing guitars from both Stuart and Bruce Watson and a stirring rhythm courtesy of Tony Butler and Mark Brezezicki and sets the tone perfectly for what is to follow, with 'Dive Into Me' continuing on from the rousing beginning.
Always one to write of the problems of the world and the optimism and hope for the future, Stuart touches upon these issues on this album in the form of 'The President Slipped and Fell' and 'Trouble the Waters', whilst the hope and optimism is delivered in 'Perfect World'. All three are bold tracks, their musical strength reinforcing the lyrical message.
The album ends with 'Grace', which again has a spiritual feel. Stuart's ability to write of what he feels passionately about is conveyed perfectly throughout the album.
There was plenty of the unique Big Country sound here. Guitars and mandolins with strong drums and bass forming the basis for many of the tracks, with also a little slide guitar featuring to add to the bluesy feel which is evident on certain tracks. The ballads are done in true Big Country style : soft and powerfully conveying emotion. The production by Rafe McKenna and Big Country is slick throughout.
A Big Country album of course would not be the same without any amazing guitar riffs and solos courtesy of Stuart Adamson and as usual he did not fail to disappoint. The man was a genius.
Overall, Driving To Damascus was a leap forward for the band, containing influences never before embraced which saw the band back at the peak of creativity.
Although Big Country were out on the road performing their 'Final Fling' there was a sense of optimism that we had not seen the last of Big Country and as Stuart had said it was their intention to work together again, the fans treat their tour as a celebration of the past years instead of goodbye. I saw the band in Newcastle on this tour and indeed there was a sense of optimism as Stuart said "We'll see you all again." I did not think for a minute that this would be the last time I would ever see Big Country.
Tragically however, this was not to be, as following concerns regarding Stuart Adamson's whereabouts and his state of mind during 2001, subsequently led to him being found dead in a hotel room in Hawaii in December of that year. He had hanged himself.
Having battled with depression and alcohol, it seems that his inner demons finally took their hold and the world lost a very talented man with a big heart.
Driving To Damascus may be the band's final album and their tour did indeed turn out to be their final fling, but Big Country gave their fans plenty to be thankful for over the years. Stuart wrote some poignant lyrics on this album which I have written about, but the fact that this album sadly turned out to be their last, is what makes it so poignant for me.