A fey singer-songwriter from York, Benjamin Francis Leftwich is among the latest in a long line of acoustic musicians to gain mainstream acceptance in the U.K. Given the weakness of music sales these days, the ascent of his début album to No. 35 on the U.K. album chart over the summer appears to represent a major triumph for alternative music. Similarly, the singer’s largely sold-out tour around the country looks to be the emerging of a real talent before our eyes. With any luck, however, the U.S. release of Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm will again draw attention to what has been forgotten or ignored in Leftwich’s inexorable and well-funded rise to the top – that his songs aren’t very good.
Sure, Leftwich has his outward persona all figured out. His publicity photos have him strolling through corn fields in a hoodie looking morose, and he insists on touring without the backing band used on the album because he “prefers it”, just a man and a guitar strumming out into an unfeeling world hooked on The X Factor (oh yes, he comes out against The X Factor). But for all these crowd-pleasing appearances, Leftwich must still be judged on the quality of his songs – and it is these which simply do not in any way justify the attention the man has received.
Few young artists given the opportunity to release an album-length statement would use that chance to put out so slight and tawdry a record. A hardcore punk band might get out a magnum opus in 31 minutes, but in the case of Leftwich’s approximation of folk it is simply evidence of a lack of ideas. Augmented only by fairly minimalist drums and a little electric guitar for “atmosphere”, these ten songs are about the playing of acoustic guitar. It is a major issue, then, that Leftwich simply does nothing of interest with his favoured instrument – frankly his playing is average at best. Moreover, his one-paced and one-dimensional songs are in all cases consistently weak in comparison with his contemporaries, which is to say the Mumford & Sons, Laura Marlings and Alessi’s Arks of this world. The bar for this kind of music has been raised; Leftwich has not noticed.
Without doubt the most numbing aspect of Last Smoke is – oddly – the area Leftwich’s fans seem to most admire him for. The vocals and especially lyrics here are nothing short of an absolute disaster zone; throughout the entire album Leftwich sings with exactly the same pace, tone, and intonation and barrels through a set of lyrics crudely hacked together from a catalogue of tired clichés, empty platitudes and nonsensical non sequiturs. “I hope you find what you’re looking for”, Leftwich sings on “Shine”, “so your heart is warm forever more”. Yes, that is the 1930s calling – they want their mawkish sentimentality back.
Featuring only the shallowest bid for prettiness in place of any kind of real emotional resonance, Last Smoke Before the Snowstorm is simply one of the worst singer-songwriter débuts for some time. No better than it was on its U.K. release, this record is vapid, unforgivably boring and completely unnecessary. That something which looks and sounds like the first ten songwriting efforts by the most workmanlike amateur should take up shelf space and A&R money deserved by so many superior talents out there is not only difficult to explain but also genuinely upsetting. It is also, sadly, a sign of the times.