CAMEL: A NOD AND A WINK (2002)
1) A Nod And A Wink; 2) Simple Pleasures; 3) A Boy's Life; 4) Fox Hill; 5) The Miller's Tale; 6) Squigely Fair; 7) For Today; 8*) After All These Years.
Apparently, the idea of once again writing pretty, life-breathing music stuck with Latimer for a while, because this slightly belated, but logically continuous sequel to Rajaz (formally dedicated to the memory of Peter Bardens, who had died in early 2002) sounds every bit as lively as its predecessor, and sometimes even livelier. Again consisting of a few lengthy «progressive» tracks rather than a big bunch of short pop ones, A Nod And A Wink features two new band members (Guy LeBlanc on keyboards and Denis Clement on drums), plenty of musical ideas, and all of that uniquely Camel-esque melancholic atmosphere provided by a variety of Latimer guitar tones (rather than a single howl-at-the-moon one), flutes, acoustic and electronic keyboards.
The biggest difference from Rajaz is that this record is much more noticeably «English» in nature — where Rajaz took its inspiration from Arabian deserts, A Nod And A Wink has a subset of tunes very specifically loaded with British imagery, such as ʽFox Hillʼ (which wouldn't sound completely out of place on a classic early Genesis album like Nursery Cryme or, for that matter, Foxtrot) and ʽSquigely Fairʼ, a near-instrumental with alternating folksy / Elizabethan themes and even a very Jethro Tull-ian flute solo in the middle. This is not necessarily a good thing (immersing himself in Irish motifs did not help save Harbour Of Tears from being boring), but with the entire positive retro vibe going on, these influences are not ruined by stuffy production or too much dull instrumentation, so it's okay.
Like on Rajaz, the individual tunes do not seem to be too memorable; it is more important that they keep mutating, never letting a particular mediocre groove overstay its welcome before replacing it with an aggressive guitar solo or a pensive acoustic part or a jazzy interlude or something else — and that the tones, tempos, and moods constantly shift between tunes as well. ʽA Boy's Lifeʼ alone goes through an acoustic introduction, a heavenly anthemic theme with Andy on rainbow slide guitar, a gentle folksy waltz section, and a grand climax with a thick, juicy psychedelic solo: a prog lover's dream come true once more, in other words. The only bad news is that the band does not use enough tricky time signatures — but then again, think back on the old times: Camel were never really that big on 15/8 or 21/4, preferring to leave that side of the business to King Crimson, Genesis, and Gentle Giant.
As it is, it's fairly hard to explain why A Nod And A Wink sounds so good — its compositions do not linger too long in memory, its innovative potential is close to zero, and it does not even have a proper concept, let alone all the fox-hunting and village market references that are only valid for parts of the record. But somehow it just does. Even the slow, ponderous, anthemic ʽFor Todayʼ that ends the album with a choral sermon of "never give a day away / always live for today", somewhat echoing the old "never let go, never let go", sounds good, with Andy's «Gilmour-lite» bluesy soloing beginning in deeply tragic mode and then merging with the regal choir in an oddly uplifting-depressing symphonic sound, leaving us somewhat confused as to whether that admonition about never giving a day away is to be understood sincerely or ironically.
Still, if I truly had to single out one track, it would be ʽFox Hillʼ, for its ability to take the Camel sound and drag it out of its typically sluggish shell — the song is quite an agitated, spirited romp through several distinct musical parts, culminating in one of the most fabulous slide guitar solos I've ever had the pleasure of hearing from Latimer: catchy, yes, but most importantly, almost fox-like sly in execution. It is the kind of epic that was so sorely lacking for the previous twenty years, flexing a little muscle and sporting a bit of an ironic smile; essentially, there's always hope for any artist who, in the twilight years of his career, is still able to put out something like that.
Naturally, the album as a whole gets another thumbs up, and it is quite regrettable that Camel were not able to continue this winning streak — largely due to Latimer's own health problems, as he found himself battling bone marrow cancer and only managed to somewhat recover in the early 2010s. (The latest official «new» Camel release is a 2013 studio re-recording of the entire Snow Goose, which I have not heard and have very little intent to do so). And although this long break may be fatal, A Nod And A Wink definitely does not sound like a proper swan song record may be expected to sound — because, of course, it was never meant to be Camel's last album, and we might yet get to hear another report on another day in dromedary life, provided there's any audience left in the 2010s to want to hear it.