Being a Marling disciple and — despite the mega-church tendencies of my peers — a Mumford one as well, I’ve always felt drawn to the music of Johnny Flynn. (If you don’t quite follow, Flynn, Marling, and Mumford & Sons constitute the core of what many refer to as the “London folk scene”.) But despite this peerage, Flynn has not yet seen the level of popular success achieved by his friends (admittedly, I mostly refer to Mumford), and, for a wild moment, I imagined that Country Mile might be his breakout album.
Alas, the idea of a “breakout” would be approaching Flynn’s artistry in the wrong way. For where Mumford is an arena-rocker in flannel disguise and Marling on the hunt for Joni Mitchell’s imprimatur, Flynn is a member of a Shakespeare theater troupe. The rare folk musician who might be more inspired by Jacobean-era poets than Bob Dylan, he is, broadly speaking, one of the few British folkies drawing more from the British tradition than the American one.
From the wending “Tinker’s Trail” to the distinctly Pink Moon-era guitar on “After Eliot”, this album finds Flynn in a more subdued mood than his previous releases. The fury of “Howl” and the pulsing energy of “Kentucky Pill” (both off Been Listening) have been reined in and streamlined. The result of this newfound discipline is an album full of affecting and dynamic, though often quiet, moments, the best example being the bridge of “Bottom of the Sea Blues”, into which Flynn expertly stuffs his syllables, before letting the lines breathe, and then finally allowing the staccato syllables to flow out into the chorus. Another fine example is the slow and steady build of “Murmuration”, which, as it comes to a head in the final chorus, lends Flynn’s words — “It’s a stout heart” — some real credence.
But the best indicator of Flynn’s more focused songwriting is “Einstein’s Idea”, a lullaby written by Flynn for his young son. Flynn has gone on record to claim that the song is an attempt to explain the theory of relativity to his son, but the weirdly ambitious lesson, as far as I can tell, is more of a ruse in which to plant this idea, which may be the best lyric of the year:
The suns and the moons and the galaxies far
Were cast from his bow before they were stars
And the gap in between them is nothing to us.
Our eyes cut the distance, as loving eyes must,
From me unto you, son, from dust unto dust.
The play between the mortal and the eternal, the universal and personal — Flynn makes this exchange between father and son resonate as an easy and natural thought.
That said, the biggest danger Flynn faces is the heavy-handedness of his lyrics. Sometimes he lets the lyrics get ahead of the music; that’s all good and well when you’re Leonard Cohen, but Flynn doesn’t have that lyrical oomph quite yet. “Time Unremembered”, for instance, has several lovely lines (“we love along the white lines in the middle of the road”), but is a little too musically sluggish for its own good.
So despite some minor quibbles, this is a very accomplished album and one that shows Flynn well on his way to becoming the UK’s next great folk troubadour.