Johnny Flynn: “Been Listening”
It’s been a tumultuous couple of years for Johnny Flynn. Since releasing his terrific debut album, A Larum, in 2008, the British folkie has dropped from Lost Highway Records, and he’s seen some personnel shake-ups in his Sussex Wit ensemble. And it’s not just in his personal sphere that things have shifted; the times are a-changin’ as well, with a resurgence of interest in traditional folk music on both sides of the pond. Just think: A couple of years ago, Flynn stood out as a totally out-of-time songwriter and performer; these days, it’s impossible to find mention of him outside the context of Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons.
But second album Been Listening brings good news: He’s still the same old Johnny Flynn. He still pens wonderful songs, with finely-honed storytelling skills that reflect his training as a Shakesperean actor. And he’s still wonderfully anachronistic– his traditional folkie guise is more lived-in than that of his peers– even as he’s dialed back the Dickensian ragamuffin act in which most of A Larum was based. He still writes in character, but here the characters are more varied, and less affected: The title track is written from the standpoint of a real-life traveling evangelist who tried to trick God with his worldly blues music, and Flynn uses the tale as a launching point for a wry observation on religion and human nature.
It’s his Sussex Wit that’s changed. Flynn explains that he wrote the record’s lead track, “Kentucky Pill,” after the addition of a new drummer, whose more groove-oriented playing style not only transformed the group’s dynamic, but inspired Flynn to write an uncharacteristically bright, sunny, African-flavored pop tune, complete with a soulful brass section. It would seem that the song proved a turning point for Flynn’s music, as it lays the tracks for an album that’s more muscular, more varied, and altogether more band-oriented than his fine debut; “Churlish May,” for instance, maintains the opening number’s shiny, brassy sound and marries it to a rocksteady beat. Elsewhere, he explores different shades of his British folk roots: “Barnacled Warship,” with its aggressive beat and sawing violins, is chamber folk with strong rockist leanings; “Been Listening” hints at the blues, while “The Water” is a delicately strummed ballad, but fuller and more complex than many of the similar tracks from A Larum. Incidentally, it’s also a splendid duet with Marling.
Her presence on this record may suggest that Flynn is inviting– or at least making peace with– his being lumped into the neo-folkie revival scene, and that’s nothing less than very gracious of him: While these contemporaries, Marling included, take great pains to recreate traditional folk tropes and trappings, Flynn keeps the old spirit wonderfully alive and vibrant by not allowing his own music to become obsessed with historical detail, instead allowing the very definition of folk music to stretch well into pop and rock, music from the Americas and Africa too. It makes Been Listening a step forward– an album that builds on the promise of his debut– and confirms Johnny Flynn, actor or not, as the real deal.