Billy Bragg & Joe Henry have teamed up to make an album about trains. The press for the album has made lots of the communal experience of the railroad, and the impact that it’s had on American history, but ultimately Shine a Light is a pean to trains, and the culture surrounding them. The duo sing “classic railroad songs”, recorded over the course of a four-day long train journey, which creates the odd effect of allowing the collaged intimacy of Shine a Light to create a sweeping, dramatic scope.
The duo don’t shy away from the “journey” nature of the album. It’s rife with field recordings, and the first audible sound is of a distant steam engine whine. Of course, the track (opener Rock Island Line) quickly develops into a rollicking folk tune, but the sounds of people milling about at a station are ever-present. A good ear reveals the sound of the wind rushing by a train window on most of the guitar recordings, creating an atmosphere of constant movement.
The actual songs vary in quality, but are strongest when the writers focus on the people travelling, instead of on the trains themselves. The aforementioned opener, Rock Island Line seems to literally be about how much the writer loves the eponymous train line, singing that it’s a “mighty good road”. There’s a few tracks like this, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that they’re somewhat light, or silly. Instead, the album is more successful when it allows more humanity into its subject matter.
Lonesome Whistle is about being forced to ruminate on your regrets during travel. Waiting for a Train tells a story of a man being kicked off a train for being unable to afford a ticket, then wandering, lonely through the plains of Texas. Gentle on my Mind is a story of two lovers torn apart by travel. There’s a quintessential sadness to each of these stories, and as they pile across Shine a Light, it creates the impression of a musical scrapbook, or a series of increasingly fraught diaries from various wandering souls. This is when Shine a Light is at its best, when it ignores the macro of the marvel of the railroad itself, and focuses down on the micro, of the people affected by it.