For Tall Tales and Rumours, his fourth release, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Luke Jackson retains the trio format, with bassist Andy Sharps and percussionist Connor Downs he introduced with mini-album This Family Tree (reviewed here). He also immerses himself deeper into the blues while also exploring new, jazzier areas.
The album opens by serving a reminder of his powerful voice with the sombre and sober The Man That Never Was (inspired by Glen Campbell’s battle with Alzheimer’s). It Opens to a deep and rich a capella that draws on work-song spirituals, Sharps and Downs providing hummed backing, before, midway through, a sparse acoustic guitar makes a feeling appearance. The track flows straight into the choppy driving acoustic blues Treat Me Mean, Keep Me Keen, a sexual dynamics lyric from when the album title comes. You could imagine Robert Plant getting on down to this.
With Amy Wadge on backing vocals, ‘life on the road’ lament Finding Home is a slower, folksier number delivered with a deliberate march beat percussive strum, the descending chords of the chorus putting me in mind of Townes Van Zandt. Things stay muted for Better Man, a simple song about the transformative power of love that draws on the imagery of opposites picked out on electric guitar, but then it’s back into a driving bluesy bass groove with Anything But Fate that, with a lyric that speaks of a troubled mind and despair, feels like a cocktail of Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac.
Effectively stripped back, a companion piece to Father and Son (Fumes and Faith – 2014), the nigh six-minute Leather & Chrome is a particularly strong and piercingly poignant number about a son riding to California on the motorbike lovingly built by his late father to honour the old man’s unfulfilled dreams which conjures the same emotional power of Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes.
Taking on a bluesy prowl and gradually building in musical intensity, I Remember etches a brooding mood to mirror the unsettling lyrics of a stalker’s sociopathic possessiveness as he sings “they say a caged bird cannot sing. That’s how I like them. I like them locked in.”
The darkness spills over into Aunt Sally, a deceptive bluesy boogie arrangement couching a bleak social commentary tale of pills, drink, broken dreams, care in the community, palliative medication and mental breakdown.
After all this, the life on the road hotel room homesickness sketch of the airy, almost courtly, fingerpicked Kansas comes as a relief with its light at the end of, if not the tunnel, then at least the tour with “coming back to you is a promise worth fulfilling.” There’s a warm glow too on the choppy, jazzed rhythm of Lucy & Her Camera, a familiar but well-observed tale of a guy trying but failing to get himself noticed by the girl he fancies down the club who, “capturing the moments of the night…sees everything but me”, only to deliver a tap on the shoulder happy ending.
It is, of course, too good to last and the darkness floods back in for That’s All Folks, a one-take, stark, chilling, minimally accompanied account of a suicide, another soul broken by “a lifetime spent searching for that missing piece.” It’s appropriate then to end on a note of salvation, returning to the world of the touring musician and drawing on the likes of Sam Cooke and Ben E King (not to mention Van Morrison) for the classic slow soul swing live set closer favourite On The Road. However, it comes as little surprise from a musician who, in the last 18 months, has driven 60,000 miles and played almost 200 shows, that, while home may be where the heart is, “mind body and soul is on the road” and, once the batteries are recharged, there’s a restless itch to travel it again. With the demand this album is likely to engender, he might be well advised to invest in a VW camper.
Tall Tales and Rumours is out now via First Take Records
Luke Jackson is on tour now.