The Pictish Trail is Johnny Lynch, a man whose remarkable micro-label, Fence Records, publishes a tight group of folkish, indie Scots musicians including King Creosote, Lone Pigeon and James Yorkston. When he isn’t putting out records he is organising various festivals that spiral out of Anstruther and the East Neuk o’ Fife, spiritual home to the Fence artists.
It is hard to imagine how he also find time to record as The Pictish Trail, but in five years since making Fence’s top selling record, Secret Soundz 1 he has, amongst other things, worked with Adem and produced an album of 50 songs, each 30 seconds long. He has also moved to the Hebridean Isle of Eigg, owned by its 90 residents but best known for being a long way from pretty much everywhere. This move, seismic in terms of Fence’s carefully defined geography, seems to herald a new stage in his life, coming after the recent loss of his mother. Secret Soundz 2 is full of goodbyes and new starts, but it’s not about radical change, more finding the way to move forward. It’s no surprised that these songs develop The Pictish Trail’s rich and distinctive sound to new levels of subtlety.
Secret Soundz 1 is a much-loved collection of summer electronics delivered through a haze that proved not to be heat, but the freezing fog of Fife. Secret Soundz 2 is an explicit sequel, and like its predecessor kicks off with an instrumental, ‘Secret Sound #6’. A vocoder voice announces “Secret Sounds” and gentle, buzzing keyboards trot away through a squeaky, cartoon landscape. This and ‘Secret Sound #7’, which has a jaunty, whistled tune, have the sunny melancholy of the best children’s TV music, and both were indeed written for a children’s film that has gone missing in transit.
There are clues to Lynch’s move all the way through the record. As he said recently in an interview with The Quietus, “Ten years is a long time in show business. It’s an even longer time in obscurity.” Ten years on from his first record ‘Sequels’ is about being unable to make big decisions or move on: “You keep resetting yourself / to another ten years of shit sequels.” It’s a beautiful track, notes bending like firs in a gale as a Lynch’s vocals sink slowly while attempting to cross treacherous ground.
Songs such as ‘I’ve Been Set Upon’, with its delicate falsetto, are full of vulnerability. Lynch sings about insecurity as a musician, and loneliness in crowds on “The Handstand Crowd”. The latter, with a gorgeous, sad swelling harmonium, has lyrics on preferring to stay at home “the shadows closing in” than go out partying, and suggests that something has to change to stop him destroying himself.
At the heart of Secret Soundz 2 is a song about the death of Lynch’s mother. ‘Wait Until’ has a keyboard crunch to its beats and unnerving background knocking, as Lynch gives a very raw account: “You wait until / I arrive / to tell me you’re going away / to tell me you’re so sorry”. It is emotionally convincing, and musically subtle and inventive, ending with as a distorted cello plays a frantic dance of death.
In ‘Michael Rocket’ Lynch takes a different perspective, casting himself as the title character who stays indoors, becoming isolated, and then finds he no longer fits in. His clear, high voice comes into its own on this track, yearning among the barrage of tiny bells, pipes and bleeps, and declaring “Let the strange times roll”.
The seagulls on ‘I Will Pour Down’ were recorded on Eigg, but the song is a sunset goodbye to Cellardyke, next to Anstruther, which Lynch has left behind. It builds a heavy layer of sound, but breaks into a synthesiser shower that lifts the mood of regret. This is not the final track though: the album ends with song written several years earlier, ‘Long in the Tooth’, which is defiantly jolly, giving a failed relationship the bird over infectious radiophonics, and bouncing back in with a hidden instrumental coda.
Although Secret Soundz 2 wears its heart on its sleeve, and is unashamedly about sad and difficult times, it is never self-indulgent or gloomy listening. Lynch’s talent, like many other Fence artists, is to use his music to transmit his experiences honestly and openly while creating music that transforms into something special. This album is surely his best yet, warm, multi-layered and deeply likeable. It leaves us wanting more, so let’s hope Eigg has the answers.