Johnny Flynn has left it three years since his last album, long enough for anticipation to be officially stoked. His first two records – A Larum and Been Listening – were a revelation. Flynn seemed to spring fully formed on to the scene, equipped with a set of exceptionally mature, folk-inflected songs he had written as a sideline to his acting career. Both albums stood out a mile for the sharp focus of Flynn’s lyrics, which were literate, angular and unpredictable. He covered subjects as diverse as love, war, suicide, archaeology and living rough, and located his songs in a range of unexpected places from Holloway to the Hong Kong Protestant Cemetery.
Country Mile has a lot to live up to, the effortlessness of Flynn’s previous work only adding to the load. The opening title track has a distinctively robust Flynn sound, beefed up by a distorted electric guitar, clattering percussion, and a lovely melody switch two thirds of the way through. It is also strangely equivocal, a song about walking and singing and not much else. The music seems under-served by the nebulous lyrics, an unusual sensation for the Flynn listener. Then ‘After Eliot’ kicks in, and the heart sinks. Any song that begins “We shared the experience of being alive / And then we took some tea” has a lot of ground to make up, but when it also boasts a chorus of “Holly-go-lightly / Bright as the day / Fresh as the moon / And stale as the hay” sung, according to the song, by a lark, there are big problems. Something has gone badly awry.
Johnny Flynn has not lost his songwriting mojo completely, and his tunes are striking throughout, but his lyrical abilities keep going strangely missing on Country Mile. ‘After Eliot’ has a ludicrous title and deeply fey lyrics, but the tune is gorgeous and it is expertly arranged for rambunctious strings and slide guitar. However, ‘Fol-de-Rol’ is either about a spiritual journey or nothing at all, as its title seems to admit; ‘Tinker’s Trail’ has a title Jethro Tull would have rejected, even in their darkest moments, and baffling clichés such as “”Are you going to tomorrow? / Or are you heading home?”
On the plus side, there is much that is up to his old standard. ‘The Lady is Risen’ would slot happily on to Been Listening, with its bitter-sweet trumpets and ambiguous relationship issues “You’re too good at pulling that wool over me”; ‘Einstein’s Idea’, addressed to Flynn’s two-year son, is both mystical and genuinely touching; and ‘Time Unremembered’ is deeply sad, a heartbreaking reflection on loss (“The packers and the movers don’t have any time to lift / More than what lies to hand.”)
Lazy reviewers have compared Country Mile to Mumford and Sons, but that is deeply unfair. Johnny Flynn is a clever and original songwriter, and he sounds like no-one else. Country Mile is his weakest work to date, but it is still worth 40 minutes of anyone’s listening time. However, we could do with more of his best.