Susmit Bose’s compilation album of 26 original songs titled Then & Now is too then to be now. Having operated strictly within the tradition of Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie’s urban folk for five decades, the 70-year-old Delhi singer-songwriter is nothing if not a man of his time. But is he a man of this time?
Yes and no. Between the 1970s, when Bose began performing, and 2020, the nature of the world and humankind’s troubles haven’t changed, so Bose is safe on that account. One set of songs calls for social change in the face of globalisation, war, fascism and poverty. Another set is observational and impressionistic, drawing from his memories of day-to-day living in Delhi.
But because of the nature of the music he makes, Bose’s engagement with the world seems dated today. Music, including the kind that addresses Bose’s concerns, has changed since the 1970s.
Today’s political pop music carries cynicism and fury that makes the wide-eyed optimism of Bose’s lyrics feel odd in 2020. All of Bose’s music, or at least the selection of songs here, seems to have been written in just one decade. The only way to figure the passage of time is through Bose’s references to a Narmada Bachao Andolan here, a Godhra riots there.
The one song in which Bose comes across as aware of the time he is speaking to is Wipe Out The Jargon. He foresees a future in which the “restlessly confused” and the “selfishly amused” young don’t want to listen to the old.
“Wipe out the jargons we wrote on the wall,” he says. “Those writings have nothing to say. We wrote with such feelings sometimes yesterday, but they don’t hold at all for today.”
What makes Bose’s style of guitar-and-harmonica laments and protests worthwhile is the songwriting. Bose is a terrific songwriter, even when his lyrics fall short. Dear Sir, in which he takes on men who abuse women, is a good example. It’s a great tune, with a welcome saxophone solo thrown in. But Bose bungles up with the song’s premise as he is be able to be only so progressive: “Would you treat your mother, your sister or your daughter the way you treat your women around?”
Produced and curated by singer-songwriter and filmmaker Jaimin Rajani, Then & Now is Bose’s first digital release. The first half of the double-disc album is a reissue of Bose’s 1973 release Winter Baby and the 1978 album Train To Calcutta. Some of the songs such as Oh! India are badly mixed. The rest carry some crackling from the vinyl originals. The second half comprises selections from his work in the 2000s.
Bose’s songwriting is strongest when he picks an incident and weaves his social concerns around it, as he does in Street Soliloquy and Train to Calcutta. An excellent song is the wry Friend of a Friend, in which Bose speaks of a conversation with someone not unlike him, holding forth on the world’s woes.
Bose is also on point when he’s working with images: the melancholic Winter Baby, for example. Or the surrealistic outlier The Wild Party, in which a mermaid flirts with a polar bear, animals dine and humans pick up scraps, and an anthill reaches the second floor of his house.
He is weakest when he packs his protest songs with platitudes, like Time for a Change. When is it not time for a change?
While Rajani’s tracklist gives a comprehensive understanding of Bose’s work to new listeners, it is just way too long. It would have been better if this was condensed to no more than 12 songs. Some mediocre cuts like Cafe Lifestyle could have been excised. What’s the point of keeping the Train to Calcutta songs that are barely audible in their present state? Why stuff the first half of the album with poorly recorded songs and turn off a new listener?
What should have kicked off this album is Walking Talking Contradiction, Bose’s rare (and fun) attempt at introspection.
Here’s a singer-songwriter communicating the agony of the working class and the poor to city slickers in the English language. As a concept, it is patronising in itself. On top of that, urban folk, which is what Bose associates himself with, is a label that has historical context in the West. It is absurd to put that to use here.
Walking Talking Contradiction, with its vaudevillian sense of humour, is autobiographical but also nonsensical. It’s a delight to hear Bose sing he’s “a walking talking contradiction living in an age of fiction” who knows that he’s just “Dylan-ising situations”. The song has a quality that is missing in the other tracks: a sense of the artist investigating his place and purpose with respect to his world.