Johnny Flynn exists between two worlds. One as a touring musician – writing and releasing three albums to critical acclaim, Sillion being the fourth. The other on stage and screen – performing Shakespeare at the Globe, starring in the Netflix series Lovesick, and acting in Hollywood alongside the likes of Anne Hathaway.
Even within the realm of music, Flynn is decidedly homeless. His debut album A Larum was nominated for a BBC Folk Award, an institution whose fixation with ‘proper’ folk music is almost incestuous. His songs too display deep roots in traditional folk music, often taking familiar ballad forms and harking back to literature of bygone days. Despite all this, Flynn’s musical heritage lies in the same West London folk scene that spawned Mumford and Sons and Noah and the Whale. This was a group never accepted by the folk establishment, with artists like Laura Marling going on to be championed by the alternative music press.
In Sillion, this disparity lives on. In some ways the ‘rock’ in Flynn’s unique brand of folk rock has been emphasised. All bar one track is performed with drums and electric guitars, more akin to his 2010 release, Been Listening. The songs Barleycorn and Jefferson’s Torch even feature blues-style guitar solo breaks. But in the face of this, Sillion sounds more like a traditional folk record than anything released by Johnny before.
Take the aforementioned Barleycorn. Beyond the marching drum beat and crunching guitars, the track is an ode to John Barleycorn, a personification of the barley crop of British folklore. Aside from the sonic revamp, the tale is sung with beautiful, haunting harmonies and a large amount of reverence to its source. Wandering Aengus takes its roots from the poetry of Keats, while producing the most rousing, upbeat song of the record. With wailing horn parts and a vocal delivery that goes from delicate to irreverent in the space of a line, this will put a smile on any Johnny Flynn fan of old.
More poetry pops up as “ours is but to do or die” is gleefully quoted from Tennyson in Heart Sunk Hank. Death is ever present in Sillion. The album opener Raising the Dead finds Johnny singing of the loss of his father. Many choruses also consist entirely of religious interjections of “Hallelujah!” (Barleycorn) and “Gloria!” (In the Deepest), hammering home this spiritual message. The mortal motif couples with Flynn’s obsession with history in the artwork for the singles, which feature ancient artefacts laid to rest in shallow graves.
Heart Sunk Hank itself is a peculiar song. Recorded as if live in a folk club, the song showcases Flynn’s talent for stripped back singer songwriting, a factor that is lacking elsewhere on the album. However, the recording is overdubbed with an obnoxious vinyl record effect that overshadows this otherwise perfect song. It is as if he feels that performing a simple song on guitar is not enough and feels the need to resort to cheap gimmicks to hide this.
Ignoring the occasional niggle, Sillion is an album of great beauty. Other highlights include The Landlord – an epic six minute folk ballad featuring duelling electric guitars and horns, and The Night My Piano Upped and Died – which somehow draws influences from India in a way entirely in keeping with the record. A personal favourite is In Your Pockets, a simple but oh so catchy tune that summarises all there is to love about Johnny Flynn. Sillion teeters perfectly on the edge of the traditional and innovative, and will be adored by folk and rock fans alike.