I was specifically told I couldn’t give Johnny Flynn’s new album a rating higher than 3.5 stars. This is because I’ve been obsessed with his music since discovering it in 2009. His last album Country Mile, released four years ago, is still part of my regular shuffle. So, I’m clearly biased. But I’m not beyond criticism. Sillion is Flynn’s pastoral fourth studio album, and while it is a quintessential Flynn effort through and through, it does lack some of the cohesive quality of previous albums. Flynn has been accused of letting his acting take precedence over his music in the past five years, and at times, Sillion can sound like Flynn commemorating and paying homage to his folksong forebears and poetic influences rather than crafting utterly original music.

Per the title—meaning freshly tilled soil, from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem—Sillion‘s central creative vision hones in on man’s connection with nature and the cyclical nature of things. The album’s liner notes define “sillion” as “sanctified ground; made holy by the simple and mystical communion of man and earth.” And the album frequently ruminates on communing with the earth, as in “Wandering Aengus,” “Barleycorn,” “In the Deepest” and “Tarp in the Prop.” The latter is a collaboration between Flynn and author Robert MacFarlane, best known for The Wild Places and The Old Ways, books that seek out Britain’s remaining vestiges of wildness and historic trail ways, respectively. A kindred spirit, clearly. The lyrics “River flow, river come back to the stern/ And the age in which we’re walking has no time to burn/ Through the trees, through the reeds” is as much a memorial to its rivers and forests as it is a testament to their persistence.

But this naturalistic imagery is all in service of Sillion‘s homages to classic poetry and traditional folk. “Wandering Aengus,” named after the William Butler Yeats poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” elaborates on Yeats’ restless protagonist. “Barleycorn” is Flynn’s take on the folksong “John Barleycorn,” turning the tale more towards the first person point of view of this human personification of barley as it is murdered and turned into beer and whisky. “Heart Sunk Hank” has allusions to Alfred, Lord Tennyson: “‘Ours is but to do or die’/ Said Alfred to the charging light.” A recording of Tennyson reading “The Charge of the Light Brigade” even rounds out “Barleycorn.”

Musically, however, Sillion sees Flynn remain firmly in his comfort zone. The bulk of these 11 tracks are jangly acoustic numbers, albeit ones that revel in Flynn’s resonator guitar and driving plucking. But the more adventurous outliers are wonderful successes. Lead single “Raising the Dead” falls into the former category, and its chorus is unfortunately on the repetitive side. It’s not until “Heart Sunk Hank” that Flynn gives us something more intriguing. Recorded partially on a Voice-o-Graph, a recording booth popular in the ’40s, Flynn takes this throwback seriously, with his vocals mimicking traditional folk stylings and his ’20s resonator coming into its own with the period setup. The rollicking “The Night My Piano Upped and Died” – the equivalent of Country Mile‘s “Fol-de-rol” – is an exciting blend of rapid, pseudo-eastern fiddle, evocative guitar plucking and uncharacteristic percussion. “In Your Pockets” begins deceptively, with a slow guitar/drum build-up before unleashing exultant brass and violin. Glimpses of electric guitar pepper “Barleycorn,” “Jefferson’s Torch” and, most impressively, “The Landlord.”

Ultimately, Sillion isn’t a lesser Johnny Flynn album, but where it’s lacking is in its personal and observational tales—the sort of songs that defined A Larum and Been Listening. Whereas earlier songs nodded to Flynn’s poetic influences in musical easter eggs and stray lyrics, that truly takes center stage on Sillion. It’s by no means a detriment to the music, but it makes for a kind of literary folk, separate from Flynn’s usual traditional folk-inspired narratives.

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One Comment

  1. Jo

    February 26, 2019 at 9:20 am

    Your review means nothing

    Reply

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