Johnny Flynn – Sillion
Transgressive Records – 2017
After four years, Johnny Flynn makes a very welcome return with his fourth album (give or take a live CD and soundtrack) with Sillion – an old English word which means the thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plough.
And it’s a particularly apt title, as Johnny’s songs dig through the dirt and detritus of everyday life revealing a shiny life-giving loam under the surface (while still sounding like it refers to an ancient mythical beast, perhaps that figure depicted on the cover?).
But the time between releases does not represent a fallow period for Flynn. Indeed it’s been a time of immense creativity and acclaim, just not in recorded music. He’s acted and scored films, starred in a TV series, and performed in stage plays. In fact, the last time I saw Flynn was as a boy player at London’s Globe Theatre starring as Lady Anne opposite Mark Rylance in Richard III. And very good he was too.
Which all explains why Sillion was three-years in the making. Posting about the album on the Facebook page of his band Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit, he writes: “While it was coming into being I felt the world throwing up some huge changes around me, around all of us.
“And it seemed trivial to be doing anything really… and then Sillion became something to hold onto, step into and bind my heart’s questions to. Then it seemed like the only thing to do was to make, do, flow, create and share.”
And flow Sillion certainly does with an enhanced, driving creativity. The early assault of Raising the Dead, Wandering Aengus, Heart Sunk Hank and Barleycorn (all released as promo singles) are as astonishing a set of opening tracks as you will enjoy on any release this year.
In Raising the Dead (which also has a fascinating video, shown below), Johnny contrasts the death of his father when he was 18 and the birth of his daughter, and how he can see aspects of him in her. It begins the album with a statement of intent, not just about the uncompromising (often autobiographical) material but also the musical approach.
It could be misconstrued as a folkier opting for the singer, but underneath each song is a contrast, clash and compound of many musical genres: folk, country, gospel, blues, Americana and beyond. It’s a potent mix which makes the album an exhilarating listen.
The acoustic guitar-driven Heart Sunk Hank is given an intriguing sonic landscape by being recorded both in the studio and on a 1940s Voice-o-Graph machine, which captures up to two minutes of audio at a time. The song starts with the warped, old-time analogue-crackling recording before mutating into the cleaner studio cut, then back again. The song, a riff on the old trad track Ten Thousand Miles about lovers pining across a great distance, is one of many highlights.
As is the following track, Barleycorn, which also has its roots in a folk song. John Barleycorn is almost unrecordable now that so many have tackled and troubled the tune into overfamiliarity. So what’s remarkable is how Johnny has taken a sideways approach. In the traditional ballad, the titular Sir John is silent and his ‘death’ described through the actions of the people who kill and mutilate him. Of course, ‘Barleycorn’ is a personification of the cereal crop barley and the ‘murder’ a description of how it is turned into beer or whisky.
Johnny, after hundreds of years of silence, gives Barleycorn a voice, ‘In my heart is a valley/ The meek should be exalted/ I will walk through this valley/ My steps seem to falter…’ It sounds like a track from the brilliant Wicker Man sequel that the classic film surely deserves (rather than the appalling remake and forgettable 2011 effort, The Wicker Tree). What Flynn has produced in Barleycorn’s relationship to the traditional original, is the song-equivalent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Hamlet.
I could sift through and revel in the many hidden (and manifest) depths of this captivating, exhilarating and sometimes unsettling album. But the sleeve notes do it in such a succinct and intriguing way, that I feel little need to add anything:
‘Sillion is the wave of earth that is turned over by the plough. It is the moulded, sanctified ground; made holy by the simple and mystical communion of man and earth, who were once the same, but for a brief time in separation and relative acknowledgement of the other. It is a humble and undogmatic liturgy. In casting Sillion, perhaps we are asking a question of the earth – and that simple question might be asked or answered in a myriad of ways.
‘Sillion is the symbol of the point in a cycle where nothing is growing; the old crop is harvested, and the new question has barely been asked. The seeds are not yet sown. It is the fraction of a second at the end of exhalation and before we breathe in. Perhaps that’s where we are now.’
So, all I will do is leave you with an invitation to listen and be drawn-in to this strange, affecting and beautifully realised album. If you want to help make some sense of the uncertainty and alarm that many of us are facing because of the seismic events of the last 12-months, then Sillion may just help you along the way.
Sillion is Out Now. Order it via Amazon