I realize most people who read this blog aren't folkies, particularly. When I did a straw poll about what subject I was going to write about next, Show of Hands notably scored nul points. But I do want to give a very big shout out to Luke Jackson's new EP, available from BandCamp from Friday.
If you do read my music reviews you already know how much I admire this artist. A protege of Steve Knightley and Martyn Joseph, he started out singing achingly confessional songs not unadjacent to the folk tradition; but as his voice deepened and matured, he has branched out into blues and Americana. He casts his net of influences fairly widely. Richard Thompson's name often comes up (he does a killer Vincent Black Lightning) and the ghost of Bob Dylan is never far away. But he is now citing names like Parker Milsap and John Prine as influences. He has an awesome and varied guitar style, and his voice is still the best instrument on the folk-circuit. Oh god, those sustained long notes...
Of The Time is his most personal collection of songs since his debut More Than Boys. The closing of theatres during the pandemic has been tough on everyone in the arts, and folkies are more reliant than most on playing numerous gigs at small venues. It must be particularly hard for a young artist towards the beginning of his journey -- one who has moved fairly rapidly from open mic nights in his home town to supporting Fairport and touring America -- to see his career suddenly put on hold. Luke has a natural and intimate stage presence -- you never feel that there is any distance between the voice in the songs, the person talking between the songs, and the chap who chats with you on the CD stand afterwards. This means he has been able to make the transition to lives streaming better than most. You always felt that stage-Luke was talking to each member of the audience as if they were friends of his, so listening to video-Luke singing to you from his living room seems quite natural. But it isn't the same without all the "try that..." and "help me out...." moments. So here comes his contribution to that most unwelcome of genres: the Lockdown Album. He started out singing songs about growing up and leaving home, moved on to songs about seeing the world and experiencing life on the road, and now here are seven new songs about not going out, not touring, not seeing people, and even wondering if the time is coming when he will not be a singer any more.
Three themes run through the album. First, the sheer inadequacy of what people are saying about the pandemic -- the paucity of the discourse. Politicians resort to cliches ("the man in charge looks troubled on the TV / he doesn't have a single word to say") while social media is full of merchants of doom ("there's nothing scarier / than a keyboard warrior / who in real life won't say a damn thing"). Second, the sheer boredom and waste of the enforced lockdown ("maybe I'll paint the shed again, maybe I'll mow the lawn") and the depression it brings on ("I've lost sleep, ain't been sleeping / I've lost weight, ain't been eating.") And finally, unbearably, the very real possibility that there won't be a place for singers like himself in the new normal ("if they won't let me do what it is I live to do then I'll spend my days inside").
The stand out song on the album -- maybe the finest new song to come out of this pandemic -- brings both themes together. It takes aim at Rishi Sunak's cloth-eared suggestion that musicians should go away and learn some more "viable" job. It approaches the subject indirectly -- not talking about the lockdown, but just talking about songs. He hears about someone who's late father always liked to dance to a particular song. "Well, it came on the radio just the other day and when he heard the words it made him cry". This makes him think about all the ways in which music has helped him ("I found memories in melodies and it helped fix all my broken parts"). How are moments like that going to happen if all the singers have been forced to quit? The song goes from the general ("those who wrote the songs are retraining") to the unbearably specific:
but oh what could I sing
if the pain came creeping in
and no song could keep my heart from breaking
if the answer my friend wasn't blowing in the wind
because I packed this in and started retraining
How have we reached the point where someone this good can even think about packing it in?
But although this is a sad album, it is not depressing. The folkiest thing on it, "Tiny Windows", has a strong note of tentative hope; the lost lover of the first verse turning into Lady Luck by the last, and the singer promising to seize the day from now on "If you don't buy a ticket or even turn up to the race, how the hell you gonna win the prize?" I suppose the tiny windows are what we are looking at the world through during this present darkness, and the song is looking forward to the day when we can all go outside again. The melody is delicately allusive: I spent several minutes trying to work out which Dylan number it reminded me of, but after repeated listenings it has more than a whiff of Johnny Cash about it.
The last two songs on the album punch out the same feelings in different tones. "Nothing But Time" merges the bitterness of "Retraining" with the hope of "Tiny Windows" and turns them into a toe-tapping country rocker, with even a bit of Elvis-a-like belting at the end. "Used to wish for more of it, now I'm wishing it away, I got time, time, time, time, time". But the final song is more wistful: he starts out being "jealous of the sun because that big old sun just keeps on shining" but ends up accepting that darkness is part of life too and that it's "okay not to be all right all the time".
In a funny way, Luke Jackson doesn't write lyrics. He just sings what he needs to sing in ordinary language. This is what makes the connection between the singer and the audience so palpable. The pandemic feels like judgement day: but Luke sums up his feelings in the simplest way possible: "I am not okay with this".
There are moments of wisdom and poetry and haunting insight.
once the dust has settled down
hope that we remember how
the world was held to ransom
as nature changed her script
maybe we can learn from this
And not a sea shanty in sight.
Available as a digital download from 29 Jan from