A few weeks ago I went to a Johnny Flynn gig at the La Belle Angele in Edinburgh, one of the first concerts on the tour for his new album Sillion. For those who are not particularly familiar with Johnny Flynn, he is a British musician-cum-actor, who has been called a key figure in the ‘British nu-folk’ scene, from which Mumford and Sons and Laura Marling have emerged. Despite having not gained such popular acclaim as yet, more retentive readers in St Andrews may well recall his appearance with nature writer Robert MacFarlane at the Byre Theatre this time last year for Soundings, a series of conversations between esteemed writers and musicians concerning the literary and artistic process.
Coincidentally, before discussing the performance in Edinburgh and the album itself, it is important to mention Macfarlane’s contribution to Sillion (he pointed Flynn to the title itself, ‘the thick, voluminous and shiny soil turned over by a plough’, an allusion to Gerald Manley Hopkins), and ultimately St Andrews’ involvement. One of the songs ‘Tarp in the Prop’ was previewed by Flynn at the Byre, a salute to an incident with a barge and its owners on the River Lea in East London during a walk with Macfarlane in preparation for their talk here in this little corner of Fife- cultural hub indeed!
Sillion itself is a great listen, the highlights being those released as singles like ‘Raising The Dead’ and ‘Wandering Aengus’ especially. For Flynn purists, it pursues a markedly raw rock sound, a perceptible departure in sound from previous albums, Country Mile, Been Listening, and A Larum. Songs like ‘The Landlord’ and ‘Hard Road’ seem more transatlantic than ever before, and, for those fans of 70s Bob Dylan, the music appears to engage with albums like Desire. His Fairport Convention-esque folksiness still prevails in the version of ‘Barleycorn’, an ancient British traditional on the making of alcohol, among others, and the rural Celtic flavour to his songs remains- he was brought up in Wales and, during his concert, mentioned that he spends a chunk of each year in Glasgow. Yet, for someone who counts among his inspirations the poet-essayist Edward Thomas, the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and W.B. Yeats, Sillion appears to be a novel, darker twist on the almost mythic songs of nature and the bucolic that Flynn and his backing band The Sussex Wit has released previously- somehow the brassy fanfares and quaking string lines of the five-piece ensemble are more grating and harrowing than ever.
He continues to ply his trade on stage and screen- his most prominent appearance at the moment is a role as a young Albert Einstein in The National Geographic’s highly-rated experiment into scripted drama, Genius, alongside Geoffrey Rush, and he has been applauded for his role as the chlamydia-ridden Dylan on a mission to inform all his previous sexual partners in Channel 4/Netflix’s Lovesick (formerly known as Scrotal Recall).
So keep an eye and an ear out for Johnny Flynn- it’s not often one finds a true polymath!