Often the best things are said to be “more than the sum of their parts”, but sometimes the numbers don’t appear to add up at all. That a DJ and producer for London-based independent electro label Ninja Tune should have a subsequent career as the core of an acoustic trio, for example, seems quite a stretch. That such a man should have had collaborations with the likes of American R&B star John Legend and British rapper Professor Green sounds more improbable still. Yet this is the story of Fin “Fink” Greenall, still with Ninja Tune and now releasing his fourth album of dark, organic tunes.
There’s an advantage that comes with coming to a style as a relative outsider, and that’s a greater ability to challenge dominant conventions. Greenall has been quoted trying to explain Perfect Darkness‘s theme as something quite apart from “being dumped or ships leaving meadows or whatever it is people think folk’s supposed to be nowadays”. Instead, while these songs are steeped in the strummed acoustic guitar and tender strings we associate with folk, they deal with contemporary concerns. Indeed, the album’s title track is written as reassurance for a friend of Greenall’s entering a “massive record deal”, which is about as classic a case of a #firstworldproblem as you could care to mention. Like McCartney’s “Hey Jude”, however, this is a song written for one person but with a universal appeal; it even stretches out for very nearly as long. Where the Beatles’ effort sweeps us up in jubilation, though, Fink’s song is altogether more claustrophobic, profuse with the sense that hard times are up ahead.
Enhancing the emotional impact of the songs is the ability of Greenall and his band to squeeze a special kind of wiry tension from their lean arrangements. Unwilling to add in too many embellishments unless they will palpably enhance his impact, Greenall chooses to focus instead on getting the most from his acoustic grooves. It’s a strategy which generally pays off, but it does leave Perfect Darkness slightly lacking in variety; had the record lasted longer than its 46 minutes, the formula may have grown tiring. As it is, the journey is just long enough.
When Greenall makes more of a feature of his distinctiveness, it is always to his credit—comparisons to Jeff Buckley are deployed far too regularly these days, but Fink shares the late talent’s unwillingness to conform to standard singer-songwriter molds. Also bringing Buckley to mind is a tendency toward emotionally agonizing songwriting (“Save It for Somebody Else”) and some pendulous guitar work reminiscent of “Grace” (“Fear Is Like Fire”). Elsewhere, “Wheels” successfully adds a touch of the blues to Greenall’s effective formula.
The best is saved for last, however, in the form of “Berlin Sunrise”. Artists too often squander the opportunity the closing track offers: to put at a record’s conclusion a full stop which vindicates their efforts up to then. Greenall and his band nail this chance, building their closer around a slowly surging chorus which oozes ambiguity. It’s a fitting end to an album which, while not perfect, is a noble effort at twisting folk into a vessel suited to communicating messages about the alienating and contradictory nature of modern life. Not just an oddity in the Ninja Tune stable, Fink should in fact be regarded as the jewel in its crown. Penetrate the Perfect Darkness and there is a glow underneath.