The original plan was that there would only be three Lonely Planet albums, a trilogy of Sci-Fi tales centred on an astronaut. Then a fourth arrived, not directly related to the first three’s story line but continuing with the Sci-Fi theme. “The truth is, I only ever intended to make three albums and then stop,” says John Mitchell with a laugh. John, basically, is Lonely Planet. It is a solo project of his. “Then we got to the end of the three albums and I had a discussion with the label about maybe not releasing the next one under the name Lonely Robot, but with true Germanic business sense, they said, ‘We have established the brand now!’ So then everyone’s wondering where the guy in the spacesuit has gone! But I don’t really care what it’s called, as long as I get to keep making music. The thing I find most freeing about Lonely Robot is that I can just sit there on my own, get on with it at my own pace and not wait around for other people!”
John is of course quite well known in the progressive rock world not just for his Lonely Planet work, but for the monumental work he has done with Arena, Frost*, It Bites and previously Kino and The Urbane. He also notably collaborated with John Wetton. He is known for his very melodic guitar style allied with very powerful playing. John is also a very talented song-writer, gifted lyricist, and a producer and sound engineer for many rock bands.
There is quite a shift in emphasis on A Model Life compared to Lonely Planet’s other works. It is still underscored with reflections on alienation and isolation but now it is much more up-close and personal for John. It is also his first musical interaction with the world since the Covid pandemic. “A lot of shit has happened, and one quite traumatising thing was that I split up with my girlfriend of 16 years and it hit me very hard,” he says. “Then quite a few people I know died, and that hit me very hard. I thought, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. What happened to the forever ever after, into the sunset? That’s where the title comes from, A Model Life. It’s about what people’s fantasies of what they would like their lives to be, rather than what they actually are. Endless positive affirmation on social media and everything looking pure and white and like an Enya video. So every song is about being pissed off about someone or other. There’s no robots or space or anything!”
Understandably then, this is quite an emotional album. As you might expect the lyrics are often quite raw and heartfelt. But John gives an honest account of those feelings, aggrieved and deep as they are. The opening track, Recalibrating, deals with the heartrending nature of splitting up with someone, having to come to terms with knowing that that is it for the relationship and that there will not be any resolution of it. Digital God Machine moves on to assess the hatefulness and spite that uncaring writers exhibit when commenting on musicians on-line, where the safety of not having to face the musician emboldens them. The Island Of Misfit Toys deals with isolation and alienation, particularly not having a sense of belonging. Rain Kings shifts the emphasis towards the notion that males do not allow their deepest emotions to show and certainly do not cry and Duty Of Care has the musician reflecting on supporting someone with duty of care when that was not forthcoming when needed from the person now receiving it, given the added twist of adoption. The sadness of this tale is counterbalanced by the stirring nature of the music.
Musically, there is also a shift in emphasis on this album, most notably John’s guitar is much more prominent. There are certainly fewer upfront keyboards on display, though they are not gone entirely. There is the return of solos, most notably on Starlit Stardust and the tense Species In Transitions. But John felt the need to be more ambitious too. “I do think this record is different,” he explains. “There’s lots of weird sounds and soundscapes. I’m just trying to make odd sounds out of things. On Digital God Machine, that’s me beating the shit out of a cello through a distortion pedal. At the risk of sounding like Peter Gabriel, there’s a lot of ethnic elements like marimbas and things I haven’t used before. I was under a self-imposed solo ban for the last Frost* record, so I really went overboard and played too many guitar solos this time. The last album was all about synthesizers, but this one is all about getting back to what I think I probably do best, so it’s all about guitar playing again.” John is again joined on the album by current Steve Hackett Band drummer Craig Blundell.
There is a broken fragility to John’s voice that is very often redolent of Peter Gabriel’s. You could include Roger Waters there too. In Lonely Robots case it adds to some of the sadness of the album. It would be a mistake though to view this as a series of dirges. The album never feels grim or depressing, it just deals with some very strong themes. It is actually very brave for artists such as John to be so outrightly honest and to wear his heart on his sleeve in this manner. It is truly a hard-hitting release, but one that remains ultimately a warm one.
All John’s usual care and attention to detail are in evidence throughout the album, along with his musical prowess and excellent song-writing skills. It has great textures and feel. His guitar playing seems much more appropriate with this music. It can, of course, be a very emotional sounding instrument in hands as capable as John’s.
This may well prove to be the best of the Lonely Planet albums thus far. Although it is inward-looking, it inevitably hits on universalities and so draws the listener in in a way that the Sci-Fi themed albums did not, at least to the same degree. Their nature made them feel somewhat synthetic, which may well have been integral to their storylines, but this one is much more organically natural. It is a decidedly vulnerable sounding album but one that is equally life affirming. It is, in the end, optimistic.
Digital God Machine
Species In Transition
The Island Of Misfit Toys
A Model Life
Duty Of Care
John Mitchell – vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards
Craig Blundell – drums
Release date: 26th August, 2022
Format: Ltd. CD Digipak, Gatefold 2LP+CD and Digital Album