During the darkest days of the Second World War - when defeat at the hands of the Nazis looked like a distinct possibility members of Winston Churchill's cabinet approached him and suggested that perhaps he should order the theatres closed as a way to save money. Without missing a beat, the prime minister replied, then what are we fighting for?
More than six decades later, Nitin Sawhney's London Undersound provides as eloquent a response to this question as Churchill could ever have imagined. Yet, the voices that Sawhney has rallied to sing the praises of his dirty old town would never have been found in the post Victorian Dickensian reality that the old cigar sucking Prime Minister embodied. In the wildest and most unkempt corner of the old man's imagination, he never could have visualized an England populated by the likes of the hip hop, bossa nova, African and Asian singers whom Sawhney has gathered here to sing its praises.
London Undersound is Sawhney's eighth album of original music and is perhaps his most ambitious project yet. Designed as a response to the bombings that rocked the London Underground on 7/7/2005, Sawhney provides a platform for diverse voices to express their love and emotion for their home.
As England has become a refuge for people from all over the world, and Sawhney allows the widest possible range of voices the chance to express themselves on London Undersound, the results are not surprisingly a touch scattered. Yet, through the impressionistic snapshots and the diversity of voices - ranging from the brash young MC Natty through to Imogen Heap, Anoushka Shankar and Sir Paul McCartney - a picture emerges of a London that means different things to different people. London Undersound is a record that is unapologetically subjective and personal in its orientation and is in no way an attempt to express the final word about its subject. Listening to the different tracks, it quickly becomes apparent that what one person takes out of an event will completely elude another who is focused in a completely different area. Listening to London Undersound from this perspective, Sawhney has scored an unqualified success.
In order to try and capture the essence of London in 2005, Sawnhey cast a wide net, and some times it seems that too many ideas have been crammed into too small a space. Yet, even when some of his compositions threaten to fly apart under the weight of their own creative vision, the results are always at least interesting. So, though it's not surprising that there are a few less than completely successful cuts on the album, it's important to remember that one person's dud might be another person's favourite track. That's the kind of artist that Nitin Sawhney is.
From an instrumental and production standpoint, London Undersound is the most perfectly realized example of Sawhney's work to date. The production is crystal clear throughout and the performances are dazzling. Using a wider palette of sounds than ever before, Sawnhey has truly made a world music recording of the highest order that captures modern British reality in all of its contradictory glory.
The breadth of the London experience is expressed as the album begins with tracks that sketch out the far ends of the city's cultural spectrum. Opening with Natty's spirited Days of Fire a song that outlines the MC's experiences on the day of the attacks - Sawhney paints a portrait of a city reeling with emotion and a population that responded in slow motion as they struggled to understand what had happened. Singing over Sawhney's acoustic guitar, the disparity between Natty's pained vocal and the optimism of the musical score underlines the struggle of people trying to carry on and live life as normal.
If Natty represents a new England seeking to define itself, Paul McCartney's presence on London Undersound reminds listeners of When I'm sixty-four sentiments and a Penny Lane that perhaps never existed outside of people's imaginations. Yet, Sir Paul's vocal contribution to Soul of my Soul surely must be considered one of his better performances of the last few decades. Who would have thought the old man had so much soul in him as he croons When all the world is asleep, we could set ourselves free with Indo-British pop singer, Reena Bhardwaj brilliantly chasing his vocals. The understated emotions that dance in the interplay between the two singers suggest that London has big enough arms to embrace everyone.
Other highlights include Distant Dreams a bossa nova cut sung by Roxanne Tataei. The Miles Davis playing in the underground horns that echo through the track are a brilliant touch that makes a perfect segue for the contributions of Spanish trip hoppers, Ojos de Brujo. This performance, in turn, prepares listeners for a variety of other textures and inspired musings from artists like Faheem Marzhar and Aruba Red.
As eloquent and heartfelt as many of these songs are, the final two wordless, instrumental tracks are the ones that resonate the most deeply. These two tracks Firmament and Cheru Keshi Rain each evoke such longing, pain and poignant regret about the state of the world today that by themselves they are reason enough to buy this CD. As Anoushka Shankar's aching sitar solo on Cheru Keshi Rain fades to allow the rumbling echo of the underground to roll across the soundtrack, the guest performers and their songs fade away, leaving listeners to journey through their own personal London as the album resolves into silence. Without a word, the subtle nuances Shankar explores remind us that there are some things in life that are worth taking a stand and fighting for.
In the end, London Undersound is a brilliant if slightly flawed - album that is only occasionally marred by the extent of Nitin Sawhney's reach and ambition. To his credit, Sawhney has succeeded in capturing a diversity of voices and styles on this record and ended up with a finished product that sounds unified, and not like a benefit or compilation album that is held together only by its theme. London Undersound is a brave and essential recording that like the rest of his work - defies categorization. With eight albums, dozens of movie soundtracks, and a slew of production credits under his belt, it appears that the best is yet to come from Nitin Sawhney. He is certainly one of the most exciting musical forces working in the world today, and a talent to watch and take heed of.