The Sounds of Protest: Zion Lights reports on a moving experience of words and song

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

– The Beatles

I love it when art meets activism, and there’s certainly a lack of protest music around at the moment, so when I heard about the new album Breaking the Spell of Loneliness by Guardian columnist George Monbiot and singer-songwriter Ewan McLennan I was keen to give it a listen.

According the Office for National Statistics, Britain is the loneliness capital of Europe, and when Monbiot wrote about this for his column, the article went viral – clearly many of us empathise with this topic. Inspired to do more, Monbiot teamed up with McLennan to see what they could achieve together, and here we have the album.

The music is masterful. I won’t give you a breakdown of all the tracks here – you need to experience them for yourself – but there’s something about the nature of the songs that makes the album feel like a homecoming of sorts. ‘The Child Inside’ will move any naysayer, I believe, for who doesn’t lament the issues our children now face, in this busy, highly digital world? These are the ballads of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell reincarnated for our time and our country: they are the sorrows of the noughties and the millennials, in song. Sung in a crisp Scottish accent.

I went to see the eclectic duo play at The Berry Theatre in Hampshire, where they put on a wonderful show, blending Monbiot’s serious talk, passionate and political as ever, with the connective power of folk music. It was very raw, and very real, just like good folk music should be.
When I first listened to the CD, I thought McLennan’s voice had been enhanced – after all, so much music is highly edited now. But having seen him perform live, I can attest that his voice really is as other-worldly as it sounds, as clear and powerful, designed to reach every corner of the Earth even when it only has a banjo to accompany it. While we were still pondering Monbiot’s musings, the music washed over the audience, and I saw one woman quietly weep. I wondered what her story was, and then realised it probably wasn’t all that different from mine – was that not why we were all here?

One of Monbiot’s points is that lack of wild time is making people hurt more than ever – and certainly there is masses of research to agree. But as well we have the human aspect that is missing from the wild: we crave the wilderness, and we also crave togetherness. What’s missing is the tribe. As McLennan sang about old times of children playing in the streets, experiencing joy even in hard times, and of residents chasing off greedy landlords (“Stones and laughter followed after | The factor as he ran”), a light appeared in my mind. And I realised: it’s the one at the end of the tunnel that we’re all in. Suddenly sorrow becomes hope.

‘I’m Coming Home’, a cover of a classic, is still relevant today. Coming home to a divided, fearful country. Another sorrow of our time.

Still, my favourite track from the album is ‘Reclaim The Street’, for its cheeky energy, inspiring lyrics and ultimate vision: of people coming together, of laying tables of food together and handing out beer, of standing together, and of course, with a nod to that old protest movement of reclaiming the streets.

Could this band help to overcome the loneliness epidemic in the UK? It’s certainly a start. The raw emotion and beautiful storytelling of the lyrics is difficult to ignore – and anyone who hears ‘These Four Walls’ will surely need to suppress a shudder. I think about all the times Leonard Cohen lifted me from a dark spell in life, or when a Guthrie song broke out at a cold, rainy protest and filled us all with sunshine. And I think Monbiot and McLennan might just be onto something spectacular here, something real, and something that is desperately needed by us all right now. Buy the album. Get to a gig. Come and hang out with us at Sidmouth Folk Week. This is the sound of our protest: let’s sing it together.

Catch Monbiot and McLennan on their #breakingthespellofloneliness tour, and buy the album.