Saturday, February 08, 2014

Fumes and Faith

Luke Jackson
Pipe Records

What a difference a year makes. Luke Jackson’s first album, More Than Boys, ended with some lads on their way home from a fishing trip singing “Oh me, oh my, where’s our worry?” This, his second, opens with a murderer asking “Hey there sister, please can you tell me why the sun never seems to shine when I step outside?” The first album was unadorned, Luke’s voice and Luke’s guitar; this one has some bass and some backing and some hand clapping and some finger snapping. The first album was a sunny day coming to an end; this one is encroaching night. The endless folksy summer has turned all dark and bluesy. There’s an awful lot of rain.

More Than Boys was rooted in the specifics of times and places — housing estates and parks that I assume the singer could point out to you. There are hardly any place-names on Fumes and Faith. It’s populated by shadowy figures who you can’t quite see. We take it for granted that the youth who used to ride his bike down the big hill is simply the singer himself; but who is the man in Sister who "took a man's life, saw him take his last breath?" Come to that, who’s the woman who "saw Moses part the sea" and "pulled Jonah from the belly of the whale"? Luke Jackson’s actual sister? A "sister" in the sense of a nun? Some kind of goddess figure? ("The one who has always been there is me.") My Folkbuddy would doubtless say I'm paying too much attention to the lyrics; that Luke Jackson is trying on styles, writing lines because they are the kind of lines that sound like they fit into this kind of English Americana.  And that’s true too. "Hey there sister I need to find my faith / Not to pray for me to to pray for him instead" is a stonkingly good line.

If More than Boys was a "growing up" album, maybe Fumes and Faith is a "leaving home" album? Or "trying to go home album"? Or a "being at just that point where you realise that if you stay away from home any longer you won’t ever be able to back" album? A boy looks for the mother who left him when he was very young; the criminal looks for his lost faith; a young man realises he's drifted away from a lover; a middle-aged lady wonders where her lifetime has gone; a blues singer is called home by his cross-roads ghost.  

It's less confessional than the first one. (Luke’s face is pointedly not on the cover.) It's more oblique, less direct. I've listened to the title song, what, five times, and I am still not completely sure I understand it. The "fumes" are drugs, I suppose. ("Boys are smoking green as they slowly drift away...”) But what is the faith? And is it the same faith that the murderer in Sister had lost? (Luke has been touring with Martyn Joseph, and there’s a church in the video.) Who is a saying "this is our home town and you're not welcome here my friend"? Is this a satire on small minded folk who don't like outsiders, or is it good people asking the drug dealers and porn pushers to leave them alone? But god forbid there should be a new generation of Jacksonolgists trying to intellectualize this stuff. This is music which bypasses the critical head and goes straight to the heart. When he sings out the the main hook, "We're paying our dues and doing our time..." you feel know just what he means.

It’s not what Mike Harding called "self-centred" but it's still written very firmly in Luke’s own voice. I can't think of a songwriter who has quite such a knack of taking ordinary English speech and turning it into lyrics. At one level, Charlie in the Big World is the most ordinary, down-to-earth, English thing you ever heard, a set of anecdotes about a character everyone recognises --"He told us his father planted the old conker tree / A hundred years ago today, but he's only fifty three / Well we rolled around laughing, we said he's a liar, can't you see? / He said are you taking the piss out of my daddy in me?" But Luke turns this ordinary tale into a sort of incantatory chant, with an edge of anger and self-reproach, maybe even slightly sinister, which ends taking the side of the serial fibber. “If lies are just dreams by any other name maybe they'd come true just the same?” 

Do I like it as much as I liked the first album? No, of course I don't. More Than Boys was the sort of album that hits you between the eyes the first time you hear it, makes you say “that’s so true, I’d forgotten feeling like that....” This one is much more slow burn: “Hmm...I wonder what he means by that, exactly...” Not surprisingly, my favourite song, Down To The Sea, is one which would have fitted most comfortably on the first album. It’s about drinking beer (“even though we was under age”) rather than riding bikes, but it’s still a celebration and eulogy for past friendships and it totally broke my heart (“One day it might feel right / one day we might feel the same / we'll go back down to the sea / and have days like those again.”

But I don't want to be That Guy who likes all Luke Jackson's songs, especially the earlier, heartbreaking ones. Fumes and Faith is a more mature, cleverer, more musically sophisticated set of songs than More than Boys, and Luke’s voice gets better all the time. And how he uses that voice... You could almost take Running Out of Time as a bleak mirror image of Down to the Sea and it’s quite extraordinary; a young man coming back to his home and finding it's changed, or he’s changed. It’s incredibly bleak; we wait in for that right-turn into hopefulness that he delivers at the end of Fathers and Sons. He seems almost to wail “I thought by coming home, maybe I'd change your mind” and there is a slight crack, the very lightest dusting of bluesy gravel in his voice. But then he half whispers “...but it seems you’ve been getting on just fine” and blows you away by singing out the refrain in that rich deep voice he uses for spirituals. There is a texture to these songs which isn’t really comparable to any other singer song-writer. When he sings “I get so damned tired with all the trying” he really honestly sounds tired. It’s only February and I suspect I've already heard the best new song of 2014. 

This is fortunately the last album about which patronising old people will be able to say "...considering he’s still a teenager...." But you do have to wonder. "I didn't know I was running out of time..."  How can songs this deep, this self-accusatory, and this world-weary be coming from a performer who hasn’t yet celebrated his twentieth birthday?

Review of Luke Jackson's first album

Folkbuddies Podcast "The Hanging Judge"

Andrew reviews the Guildford folk festival -- talks about Luke's set about 35 minutes in.

Folkbuddies Podcast: "We are not the same"

Andrew tries to persuade Clarrie that she is wrong about Luke Jackson, and everything degenerates into bickering. (Also: Highwaymen.)

1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

With predictable unpredictability, the effect of this review was to make my finally buy Jackson's first album. He's coming to our local folk clubfour days after my birthday, so I'll see him then, and I'll want to know at least some of his songs before then, as I'm rubbish at hearing songs for the first time. Thanks for the nudge.