Procol Harum hit the ball out of the park with their first, self-titled album 50 years ago. But contrary to what some might believe, they didn’t stop there. The band has continued to play progressive rock music ever since. Their latest release is Novum, their first studio album in 14 years.
A young, fairy-like woman featured in Julia Brown’s original cover artwork instantly draws you in; it’s an homage to the band’s debut album. It’s a captivating image of a woman at one with both nature and music in a style from a bygone era. It’s the kind of cover that reminds us of yet another reason records are such a great means of enjoying creative work.
The album itself is a mix of clever songwriting and solid musicianship but also often dated production and arrangement. Procol Harum has always been heavily influenced by blues and R&B, and it can be heard prominently in their sound on Novum. At the best of times, Novum is a jam session. At the worst of times, it still sounds like a great forgotten album from the early ’90s.
Novum starts off strong with the blusey “I Told on You,” which shows off the band’s skills. Only Gary Brooker remains from the original 1967 lineup, but the majority of the current band has been together for over 20 years. They’re all seasoned veterans who have played with many respected acts like Jethro Tull, Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, Roger Daltrey, and Pete Townsend. “I Told on You” shows off their musical training while remaining congruent with the work of Procol Harum and serving as a reminder of why the full band has been so accepted by fans.
“Last Chance Motel” wasn’t the chosen single for the album, but it’s the most memorable song. It’s such an earworm that by the time I listened to the album for the second time, I had convinced myself that it was a cover of a famous song I’d never really paid attention to before. It’s not though — it’s a completely original piece about falling in love and lust with your friend’s spouse. The tale also ends with a somewhat graphic and violent tragedy. Overall, it’s a chilling tale and a brilliant bit of songwriting.
The actual single, “Sunday Morning,” is an understandable choice. It’s somewhere between a ballad and a rock song. It’s also a showcase of Gary Brooker’s gravelly and emotional voice, and the balance of the band takes a more understated approach to the backing than they often do. Listen for shades of the Beatles’ “Piggies” in the first few seconds of the intro.
Pete Brown was responsible for the majority of the lyrics on the album, and his words shine most brightly on “Soldier,” an ardent, very modern anti-war track. The syntax is purely poetic. As a group that began in the ’60s, one might expect Procol Harum’s image of war to be based on the war of their parents (WWII) or Vietnam, but instead, “Soldier” makes references to the more recent oil wars in the Middle East.
Another interesting bit of verse appears on “The Only One.” A casual listen makes it sound like your average song about relationships or even depression, but it’s quite an emotional ballad from the point of view of God. As with Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” the lyrical tone is melancholy, imagining a lonely god.
A good bit of fun is found on “Neighbour,” a tale of keeping up with the Joneses and going a bit mad doing so. The end product sounds as though the Barron Knights are covering Ben Folds’ “Your Dogs.” It’s not the strongest piece on the album but is clearly intended to be playful, a welcome tone among many weighty subjects.
Several tracks have a very timely distaste for money and those involved with it, namely “Image of the Beast” and “Businessman.” Dishonest greed is a theme that runs through the album, whether it be financial, or sexual (“Last Chance Motel”), or a lust for power (“Can’t Say That”). “Image of the Beast” is the most timeless and blues-driven track on the album, and discusses the way money weaves its tendrils through society. While the track could be the theme song of the Illuminati, “Businessman” is the brutal takedown of those who prey on consumerism. The guitar work on both is spectacular.
The only romantic song, “Somewhen,” serves as the collection’s closer. Brooker’s voice doesn’t always deliver on this one, and unfortunately makes it one of the weakest points on the album overall.
Novum is a very interesting listen. The songwriters are clearly very skilled, and it’s no wonder that fans have followed their work for 50 years. Despite the passage of time since the band’s inception, many of the hot topics of 1967, such as war, greed, and religion continue to be relevant subjects, and when the songs discuss them, they do so in a completely contemporary manner.
It’s also great to see that, despite changing lineups, Procol Harum has maintained its sound and quality. Even if you haven’t been following the band, you’ll almost certainly find something of interest in these quality songs by a truly classic musical outfit.
Novum is out April 21 and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.