Jon Boden – Afterglow
Hudson Records – 6 October 2017
Before we are two tracks into Jon Boden‘s third solo album and first since 2009’s Songs from the Floodplain (part one of what will be a trio of dystopian-themed albums), the vocal habits of two unexpected singers are evoked. ‘Moths in the Gas Light’ immediately reminds us that this is a continuation of the post-apocalyptic narratives explored on Floodplain, with an urgent electronic buzz and edgy electric guitar introducing Boden’s voice. But by the time he has reached his ‘The flames are dancing on the city wall / The sirens call you to the carnival’ bridge, the strings and synths are hitting glam territory and Boden’s vocal has an unmistakable eighties Bowie sound to it. The cover of the album has Jon stood, arms outstretched, watching the apparent destruction like a character from a Chuck Palahniuk novel and the song certainly feels more like a firework display than a desperate post-war zone. Boden has, like the lyrics suggest, gone for a carnival approach here, and, unlike the more rural and traditional feel to Floodplain, this, at least for the first part, is in your face fun.
The bombast doesn’t let up on ‘Afterglow’ (the carnival setting is carried over too) and here the similarity to Kate Bush on ‘The Hounds of Love’ is fantastic. By the time the electric strings have joined the thumping drum beat and Jon is going up a gear to sing of the barrels below ‘burning so bright / As they roll down the city mile / I’m blinded by the light / Drums beating all the while’, we are embroiled in another fully operatic and cinematic dance that really brings to mind the singer’s collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company on their theatrical scores. As the ex-frontman of Bellowhead, it’s hardly surprising parts of this third album create such a grandiose and packed sonic experience.
In comparison, ‘Bee Sting’, with its mellow acoustic guitar and fiddle lines, is a real change of pace, a slice of optimistic hope and a story of love overcoming chaos: ‘the night has just begun / The fuse lit by a spark / And now I’ve found you in the afterglow / I can find you in the dark’. It’s a softly simple and clear expression of simple pleasure in the face of all that is wrong in a world turned upside down and, with the sparser arrangement and a more natural vocal, is an even more effective song than the two proceeding. It also leads very nicely onto a mid-section that continues showing the gentler side of the album. The restrained electric guitar that hangs back on highlight ‘Fires of Midnight’ and lets Jon’s rich vocal and the string arrangement sing in the fore, is a skilled piece of production. The song is lyrically short but beautiful in its refraining structure and it lingers long, even past the up-tempo and poppy ‘All the Stars are Coming out Tonight’, which would probably be the lead single.
What runs strong throughout this set is the sense of human emotion and stubborn rallying under duress. One could write a thesis on the timing of the release of an album like this in a country charged by political tensions et al, but it feels like an artistic approach is more apt. The album is absolutely unafraid to shy away from the joy of luxurious musicianship and drama. This is probably clearest on ‘Yellow Lights’, an epic seven-minute piece that jostles with ‘Fires at Midnight’ for the best track accolade. The song best iterates the flickering candle of hope in the darkness that feels like the overriding intention of the set: ‘Kindle fire with faded magazines / And all the wood that we can find / And soon the room will fill with yellow light / Flames are dancing in the gloom’. Forgive another literary reference (the songs unfold with strong imagery like scenes from a book), but the feel to the album is like the antithesis to a piece like The Road; both are perhaps looking at a dystopian or post-apocalyptic set of scenes, but in one the message is relentlessly bleak, whereas here, Boden sings and arranges pieces of music that shout of optimism and positivity in tricky physical circumstances. By the time final track ‘Aubade’ is concluding, the birds are back to singing and clouds are skimming past, and our narrator is again looking ahead: ‘I turn to watch the brightness grow / Stare into the blinding sun because I know / I’ll see you in the afterglow, under a red sun rising’. There’s another strong image for you…
A wonderful thing about many concept albums is their sonic coherence throughout, due to a steady theme knitting them. Afterglow plonks the listener from the dystopian rural setting of Songs from the Floodplain to the city during a street carnival and tells stories of love and approaching light relieving darkness. It is impressive to follow on from another solo album and continue a theme that will become a trilogy, exploring an almost Orwellian vision of place across (eventually, we are told) three albums that will work well together or as separate experiences. The musicianship on display across this forty-five-minute journey is fault-free throughout and shifts seamlessly from orchestral dazzlements to restrained acoustic partnerships that lightly brush the vocal and create a chambered atmosphere. It is a full, large scale and grand piece of work that is as intelligent as it is entertaining, and it confirms Jon Boden as one of the most interesting and exciting British singers and arrangers currently working.
Pre-Order Afterglow here: https://jonboden.lnk.to/afterglow
Fri 13 Lichfield L2F Festival (solo)
Sun 15 Hartlepool Folk Festival, Hartlepool (solo)
Thu 19 Manchester Folk Festival, Manchester (Jon Boden & the Remnant Kings)
Solo – November
Mon 6th Pocklington Arts Centre
Tues 7th The Core at Corby Cube
Weds 8th OPEN, Norwich
Thurs 9th Cornerstone Arts Centre, Didcot
Fri 10th Connaught Theatre, Worthing
Sun 12th Theatre Royal Winchester
Mon 13th Number 8, Pershore
Tues 14th Ludlow Assembly Rooms
Jon Boden & The Remnant Kings dates – November
Fri 17th Sage Gateshead
Sat 18th The Leadmill, Sheffield
Sun 19th Victoria Hall, Settle
Mon 20th Haverhill Arts Centre
Tues 21st St. Mary’s in the Castle, Hastings
Weds 22nd The Scala, London
Thurs 23rd The Lighthouse, Poole
Fri 24th The Globe, Cardiff
Sat 25th The Cheese & Grain, Frome
Sun 26th Lincoln Performing Arts Centre
Photo credit David Angel