On my last review I was hankering for some new music (I am insatiable in this regard) and so Sunday found me downtown buying a few albums. Three of them are new releases: Frank Turner’s “Be More Kind,” Janelle Monae’s “Dirty Computer,” and Eleanor Friedberger’s “Rebound.” I also got my one remaining album from the “Best of 1978” records I’ve been searching for with the purchase of Devo’s “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!”
At some point we’ll return to all these records, when the dice gods decide it is time. Let’s see what they chose for me now…
Disc 1136 is… Sillion
Artist: Johnny Flynn
Year of Release: 2017
What’s up with the Cover? I have no idea. Is that some broken piece of statuary? A crude stone carving of a cat or maybe a turtle?
How I Came To Know It: I was in the record store searching for Johnny Flynn’s 2008 album “A Larum” but saw this one instead. I was keen to have some Johnny Flynn in my collection so I threw caution to the wind and bought “Sillion” without ever having heard a song off of it.
How It Stacks Up: I have recently been able to find “A Larum” (it wasn’t easy) and now have two Johnny Flynn albums. Of the two I’ll put “Sillion” in second place.
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
Johnny Flynn is a South African born, English folk singer with a timeless delivery that would be equally at home in 1518 as 2018. “Sillion” is his fifth studio album and shows that a decade into his weird and wonderful career, he is still pushing the envelope of the traditional forms of folk music.
I had to look it up, but the definition of “Sillion” is “the thick, voluminous, and shiny soil turned over by a plow.” It is an evocative image and one well suited to Johnny Flynn’s fifth album, which is a mix of musical forms so old they feel like primordial truths, newly discovered through Flynn’s artistry.
Flynn goes on about this image for some time in the album liner notes, but the presentation feels a bit forced and affected. Fortunately the music is anything but, digging fearlessly into some kind of fey and dreamlike truth that you can’t fully grasp but somehow feels full of wisdom.
These tracks are more mood pieces than narratives, with a haunted quality that draws you in and raises the hairs on your arms. It feels like you have stumbled through the woods and come upon a troupe of Gaelic spirits sitting up late in an abandoned and crumbling cathedral, trading songs until they are dispelled by the dawn.
The opening track is as ghostly as it gets. “Raising the Dead” starts with a deep echo and the faint ringing of bells, and then Flynn’s high lilt tells the tale of the ghosts of dead relatives returning to haunt your home. It is a little eerie, but it isn’t frightening. This is a celebration of memory and the guidance we get from those who come before long after they are gone. Whether it is just memory, or whether Flynn imagines the dead actually returning to inspire us is deliciously unclear.
“Sillion” stays at this murky edge of our conscious and unconscious minds. On “Wandering Aengus” he sings:
“People talk of rain, now for the pain
Now in the swing of all the people at the gate
Call of men-folks down in the woods, bow down to Cyprus
In the hazel wood and wave
For the song, for the song of Wandering Aengus”
Who is this Wandering Aengus? Is he man or faery? It doesn’t matter. The song inspires you with the carefree joy of a walk in the woods. You might lose yourself there for a while and see strange sights out of the corner of your eye, but no serious harm will befall you.
I was never fully sure what songs were about, but they would always fill me with restless energy. Flynn goes deep into primordial rhythms and gets your heart fluttering in new and wonderful ways. For the most part, he does this with traditionally Irish structures, but he is not afraid to explore pop or jazz elements if they serve to keep you attuned to the magic and the mystery.
The production is light on bass, which help keep Flynn’s vocals from being overpowered. It can be a bit too tinny here and there, but for the most part it works with the songs well. The notable exception is “Heart Sunk Hank” which is partially recorded on an old-time Voice-o-Graph machine. I don’t know what the fascination is with these things lately (Neil Young did a whole album on one for “A Letter Home” (reviewed very negatively at Disc 850), but it needs to stop. They were a nifty novelty in 1945, but the sound quality was crap then, and it’s crap now.
This is the exception, however. For the rest of the record it has an old school quality to the sound, but not to the point where it sacrifices quality. And besides, nothing can steal the dreamy magic of “Sillion” away for long. Flynn’s lilting vocals clamber about these songs with a restless and elfin quality that makes you nervous he’s a changeling and if you listen too long he’s going to steal you away to faerie land forever. At least the music will be good.
Best tracks: Raising the Dead, Wandering Aengus, Barleycorn, In the Deepest, The Landlord