John Smith – Headlong
Barp – 30 June 2017
He may look like he should be serving artisan brioche on a unicycle, but John Smith is more hipster than that, and Headlong is a restrained and affecting album from a master craftsman. What it lacks in happy hooks, it makes up for in slow-burn – these are songs to enjoy as they unfold over many listens.
It is an album that has stuck with me over recent months and after the joys of summer have gone, it has taken on an autumnal ambience. Perhaps it has found its bittersweet home among the falling leaves and fading days…
Headlong opens with the catchy Living in Disgrace, and although upbeat, the title will give you some indication that under the shiny surface there are darker things afoot. Don’t let the gloss fool you, it’s a song about being skint but finding solace in his then-girlfriend and current wife. The melody borrows a little from Dylan’s If You Gotta Go but the vibe is more mid-90s John Martyn.
The title track Headlong follows and it’s another more poppy song that might be expected from ‘Devon folk singer’ Smith. It reminds me of Steve Winwood solo, but thankfully without the 80s synths – it’s more laid back and less triumphant. But a touch of transatlantic blue-eyes soul is unmistakable in this song, in which John shares a co-credit with Lisa Hannigan.
Far Too Good slows things down a little and it’s more of an indication of the album-to-come, confessional without being creepy, personal without feeling intrusive. John comes clean about his life on the road as a constantly-touring musician in Possession, ‘I didn’t know/ Living for the journey/ Was leaving everyone I know,’ he sings before bursting into a gorgeous guitar solo.
Producer Sam Lakeman has certainly captured the sweet tone of John’s picking – echoing the buoyant guitar of Clapton and Petty, two of Smith’s heroes. While it may not be as angular as Richard Thompson or have the attack of Pete Townshend, there is no denying that Smith is a master guitarist and his axe (acoustic and electric) positively sings on Headlong. Anyone who is invited to add extra guitar texture to a Martin Simpson album (as Smith has on the stunning Trails & Tribulations) must be a guitarist’s guitarist of the highest order.
Other standout tracks include Joanne, another touring musician tale but with the emotional core of his aforementioned partner who Smith, rather generously, commits to phoning ‘every six or seven days.’ Let’s hope he’s reading her right, and she indeed ‘doesn’t worry’ about his escapades in seedy bars and concert halls across the globe…
Joking aside, it’s a joy to hear John so positive about his relationship and new baby back home. From his songwriting, it’s clear he’s someone who thinks and cares deeply, so it’s comforting to know he has someone who does the same for him.
So, if you haven’t already, do check out Headlong. It’s the kind of album that might prick up the ears of a non-folkie friend, and with any luck hook them into something deeper and more heartfelt than your average singer-songwriter.