The Best Debut of 2008: Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit
In part 3 of The Hurst Review’s eight-part end-of-the-year musical wrap-up, we celebrate the year’s finest full-length debut recording. The end-of-the-year retrospective will continue off and on for the next month.
The word alarum is a Shakespearean coinage, basically meaning “mayhem,” “pandemonium.” And that might seem like an odd word to be used in relation to a British folk singer– and indeed, especially odd to use for the title of his debut album– but it actually fits the music of Johnny Flynn quite well, for a couple of reasons. For one, there’s the fact that, while much of the album is every bit as meditative and patiently plaintive as you might expect, it’s hardly a sleepy album; the music, though entirely acoustic, is rich, varied, and very raw, and, crucially, Flynn does not perform it alone; he’s not a solo artist, you see, but a bandleader, backed here by a folk music troupe called the Sussex Wit, who prove themselves more than adept at stirring up a ruckus worthy of the Pogues in their prime– just witness the steady pulse of opening number “The Box,” or better yet, the morbidly celebratory hoe-down of album standout “Tickle Me Pink.”
But the album title is appropriate for another reason: Flynn may be making his debut as a bandleader, but it’s hardly his debut as a performing artist, as he’s spent some years as a regular member of a British acting company. And he brings his skills as a storyteller and character actor to bear here with songs that are richly, lavishly funny and sharply-observed– not for nothing does his band call itself the Sussex Wit– by posing as a sort of Dickensian bum, a penniless minstrel spinning gutter poetry about love, faith, religion, class, and death. He plays the part flawlessly, and in so doing establishes himself as a sort of anachronistic Damon Albarn or Ray Davies, keenly peeling back the layers of social mores and customs of 19th century England– which turn out to be not very different from those of 21st century England, or America, for that matter. If anything, his songs are more complicated and sophisticated than those other two men, and it’s obvious that he’s absorbed a great deal of poetic clout from the old English texts he’s spent so long enacting– notice how he cleverly uses the written-letter motif of “The Wrote and the Writ” to offer sly insight into love, loss, and religious faith.
And for their part, the Wit provides a perfectly vibrant, shapeshifting backdrop for Flynn’s colorful lyrics, equally adept at gentle, rollicking folk and thumping folk rock. Flynn is a natural leader because, well, he can do just a little bit of everything– he plays everything from horns to strings here– and so his compositions are wonderfully sophisticated and varied. The musicians show a great love and respect for traditional folk music, but no particular reverence for it, which means they’re comfortable playing it straight on gently-strummed folk numbers, but they’re also willing to write a folk song that suddenly shifts into a swinging, horn-drenched jazz number, or to break up a very British-sounding ballad with Middle Eastern droning. The music itself, it turns out, is every bit as rich and surprising as the words, which is what makes the album not just the most thrilling debut album of 2008, but an album that sounds for all the world like it was made by a group of old pros– and that’s a good feeling to have, because hopefully, these pros are just getting started.