Album Review: Johnny Flynn – Sillion

By on Friday, 24th March 2017 at 12:00 pm
 

English songwriter and jack-of-all-trades Johnny Flynn didn’t make it to Austin as originally scheduled for SXSW 2017, but his new album ‘Sillion’ is out today, the 24th of March. While I was disappointed not to see Flynn play at SXSW, I did take a listen (or two, or maybe three) to ‘Sillion’ during my drive to and from Austin, and I must say that the album itself does not disappoint. It makes excellent driving music, especially on long uninterrupted stretches of road, where you can listen without distraction and appreciate the subtle nuances of Flynn’s songwriting.

The word ‘sillion’, as used by Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem ‘The Windhover’ refers to “the thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow.” In the context of Hopkins’ poem, sillion represents the beauty that comes from simple, everyday work, and the same might be said for Flynn’s use of the word as the title of his album. The songs on ‘Sillion’ are simple in structure and straightforward in their language. But musically, they have a sort of luminosity to them, a bright glow that emanates from the varied instrumental and vocal arrangements used to dress and decorate the lyrics.

Opening track ‘Raising the Dead’ sounds a bit like a pub singalong, with its lurching march tempo and simple refrain, but its ringing guitar and bright backing vocals stand in contrast to the rather sombre subject matter in Flynn’s lyrics. This is the kind of song you could easily imagine as the soundtrack to a film scene depicting the wake of a beloved character, which perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise, given Flynn’s forays into theatre and television.

Flynn is as adept at creating and developing characters in his songwriting as he is on the stage, and there are several examples of that quality on ‘Sillion’. ’Heart Sunk Hank’ is perhaps one of the more personal of these, where his main character is despondent about being separated from his female love. As it turns out the separation Flynn had in mind while writing the song was both physical and metaphorical. “There’s a version of [folk song ‘Ten Thousand Miles’] by Nic Jones that I really love”, says Flynn. “His version is really pure and beautiful and trembling with authenticity. But I played it to my wife and she hated it. And it made me laugh: how can it be that this person that I love hates this song?” He juxtaposes that intellectual disconnect with the more physical one involved in being a touring musician. “I’ve been away from home a lot,” he continues. “I’m always off, and I carry that sense of my love across the seas, romanticising it, and she’s like, ‘Shut up, come home.’”

‘Heart Sunk Hank’ is an interesting track sonically as well. Flynn recorded it partially inside a 1940s-era sound recording booth, which accounts for the weirdly discordant guitar melody and the distant sounding vocals. The sound booth recording is gradually blended with a cleaner, modern studio recording, cleverly creating a sense of temporal disconnect to illustrate the physical and intellectual detachment in the lyrics.

Flynn makes a character of his late piano in a track called, aptly enough, ‘The Night My Piano Upped and Died’. The song is sensual and string-driven, and Flynn creates both a sonic setting and a lyrical one for his dramatic tale of woe: “somewhere in the distant nether / I can hear her off the tether / off the hook of ones and twos / now she really sings the blues”. Later in the tracklisting, Flynn takes on a more detailed character study in the ominous story of ‘The Landlord’, beginning with the portentous lines “I met the landlord / I kept my soul / and in the morning / he was ashen and cold”.

It would be easy for many songwriters to get bogged down in the complicated harmonies and rhythms found on ‘Sillion’, but Flynn deftly avoids this tendency, maintaining a sense of energy and momentum throughout the album. Recent single ‘Wandering Aengus’ is more bluesy than the fare on the rest of the album, but its combination of woodwinds, brass, and bowed strings keeps it sonically connected. ‘Barleycorn’ is a harmonically adventurous version of a traditional English folk tune, with biting backing vocals and harsh ambient sounds in the arrangement, as well as a cool guitar riff in the instrumental bridge.

The album’s final track ‘Hard Road’ was particularly striking to me as I drove through the West Texas desert between Austin and Tucson. There’s a hint of sparkling light behind Flynn’s dark musical arrangement, just before he sings the lines “the distant call / of far off stars / are haunting all / what might have been”, and the added layers of instrumentation under the final repeated chorus seem to signify the perpetuity of the road ahead. It’s a fitting and ultimately optimistic end to an album focusing on the stark beauty and basic humanity of everyday life.

8.5/10

Johnny Flynn’s fourth studio album ‘Sillion’ is out today, the 24th of March, on Transgressive Records. Also today, Flynn and his band the Sussex Wit begin their UK tour in support of the album. You can find all the details for that tour by clicking here, and you can read our full archive of past coverage on Johnny Flynn if you follow this link.

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