Been Listening arrives carrying a heavy weight of expectation: which is what happens when you release a near perfect first album. Johnny Flynn’s Alarum was a revelation when it came out in 2008. His songs were breathtakingly original and accomplished, much better than those of friends and contemporaries such as Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons. Alarum is a fascinating, literate record, dealing in songs about homelessness, the holy sacrament, Blackfriars Bridge, and the Hong Kong Protestant Cemetery and, not least, great tunes. How do you follow that?
First track ‘Kentucky Pill’ has funky drums and trumpets, and plunges us into a fully formed and rather unexpected world of a rural US childhood. The lyrics talk about cow-tipping expeditions, but all is not well with the chorus “I’m running with a gun, that’s going to shoot my playmates down”, and the suggestion that the singer shoots his girlfriend while she’s watering the plants. Already it’s clear that this album has a different sound at its disposal, with less of its predecessor’s fiddle and squeeze-box of its predecessor, and more polish from a bigger band and a fatter horn section. It works brilliantly, delivering enough sheer entertainment to get Radio One airplay for a song that’s essentially a Jim Thompson novel.
‘Lost and Found’, the next track, could have been written for Alarum. It’s potted Flynn, with deceptively casual lyrics including a verse of fish-based puns, leading gently into musings on suicide, loneliness and death. The lyrics are breathtaking: “It’s time for me and death to wed”, for instance; the chorus is beautiful, melancholy and insanely catchy; and Flynn’s voice is raw and mellow in equal measure.
‘Churlish May’ fuses of calypso rhythms, horns and African hand drums with Flynn’s distinctly English singing style and lyrics about love affairs that are inextricable from the cycle of the seasons.
‘Been Listening’ kicks off with an autumnal and a delicious keening guitar riff. It’s a quiet and meditative, about song-writing, and musical inspiration: “it’s blowing through my stony ears.” It’s a real feat to write so naturally and effortlessly about the process of composition without a hint of self-consciousness or pretension.
‘Barnacled Warship’ is an all-out stomp, with a marching drum kicking the tune alongside the lyrics about joining the army. It’s a great anti-war song, using the excitement of the military to expose the meaningless of fighting: “I think I’ll fight a war/I don’t know what for/but I’ll learn when I get my gun.” The crowning glory is a fiddle tune which rolls like a wave off the top of the chorus, sucking under anyone with half an ear open, and rushing them exhilarated back to the surface, wondering what just happened.
‘Sweet William Part 2’ follows up on ‘Sweet William’ from his recent EP. While the first song is long, thoughtful and complex, ‘Part 2’ is a riot, imploring the introspective William him to grasp the moment: “the world has begun/with the birth of the sun/ and its death the very same day.” All we can do is have our fun while we can, and Flynn shows us exactly how, ending with a whirling danse macabre.
The album peaks with ‘The Water’ a duet with Laura Marling which succeeds brilliantly is being simple and tuneful and very pretty while concealing much musical and lyrical complexity. The meaning is ambiguous, but it seems to be about suicide, making it the most radio friendly song about death since ‘Kentucky Pill’.
There really are no weak points on this record, but ‘Howl’ is relatively less successful than other tracks. It has grittier guitar and hoarser singing from Flynn, and feels less assured than other tracks. ‘Agnes’ has a rocking guitar, and is an uncomplicated declaration of love with marriage proposal included, but is rather muddied by a dense arrangement.
The last two tracks though, are stunning. ‘Amazon Love’ is a piano duet, almost a lullaby, with a captivating resonance between Flynn’s voice and his female co-singer, possibly his sister, and a late night radio feel to the story of dreaming and journeying. “take me in, hold me close, blow me home.”
Finally, “The Prizefighter and the Heiress” already sounds like too much concept for one song, but Flynn pulls it off. Although it’s a little hard to follow his train of thought, it’s a final encore song about “the end of the struggle and the end of the night.” The full band returns here, with brass, cello and a tinkling harp playing a Morricone tune, a cheeky way to up the ante.
Johnny Flynn is one of the most exciting British songwriters working today, and he’s a fine, versatile singer. ‘Been Listening’ is a glorious album which demands to be played on repeat all summer. But the most exciting thing is that Flynn has surely not peaked yet. If he can carry on matching and raising expectations, there will be great things to come.