He is one of the most distinctive voices, both literally and figuratively, on the contemporary folk scene. Having had something of a creative burst the Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Luke Jackson gathered the other members of his trio, bassist Andy Sharps and new recruit Elliott Norris on drums and some electric guitar, alongside pianist, Jarrod Piner and backing vocalist Lizzie White, and went into the studio to lay down what he describes as “an audio version of a diary”, hence the album title, each song telling a story, some very personal, others less so.
They open in sultry, bluesy mood with the stark and atmospheric Honeycomb, a song about being stuck in a funk where the “engine’s not turning just coughing out heat” feeling “like the floor caved in and swallowed my feet” but refusing to be dragged down. There’s a sense of it being written in response to being on the endless road that is a touring musician’s life, and that certainly informs the yearningly wistful almost hymnal Home where “smoke and empty bottles fill my hotel room” and he seeks the light to lead him back, away from “a town that’s full of strangers/Where no one knows my name”, the guitar solo, Piner’s meditative piano notes and the sustained high note finale lifting it to the mountain top.
Cast in the same storytelling vein as Brief Encounter or Beyond Sunrise, the waltzing Aimee, featuring Norris on ambient electric guitar, was written while travelling across Canada by train and spins the tale of two strangers, each looking for something beyond the life they live, brought together for one night and a memorably catchy chorus.
An imagined romance is here too on Cherry Picker, a playful, blues picked groove with a lengthy bass-underpinned intro augmented by spooked piano about a farmer using his crane as a literal vehicle to court the girl of his dreams by giving her a lift back home and a view you don’t get from your average car, several of which are frustratingly piling up behind him he slowly struggles up the hill.
From his first appearance on disc, Jackson has ever been a hugely gifted songwriter and storyteller, but he reaches new heights here, particularly so on Red Oak, a keeningly sung, six and a half minute narrative based on true story of wartime love and loss sung in the voice of a Spitfire pilot who dies when his plane is shot down and crashes into the titular tree where he and his love used to court, carving goodbye words into its wood before he passes, the slow, minimal instrumentation gathering to a crescendo of reverberating guitar, percussion and keyboards.
By way of a musical shift, co-producer Dan Lucas on piano synth, Heavy leans into retro soulful doo-wop ballad territory (shades of Ben E King perhaps) for a commentary on the issue of male depression and how showing vulnerability and emotional openness, “the fear of looking weak”, are not seen as being masculine, serving reminder that “it takes fearlessness to speak” and that “there ain’t no shame/In being a broken man”.
The room’s then cleared of everyone except Jackson and his electric guitar for Baby Boomers, a chugging percussive protest song triggered by the birth of Sharp’s daughter, leading him to reflect on the changes his generation have seen and what may lie ahead for her, the lyrics counterpointing memories of adolescent innocence with the oppressive cost of higher education, toxic masculinity, losing touch with your friends, economic depression (“you can’t keep up with the price of rent./So you move back to your parents and sleep on the floor”) and how, where once the test of making it through secondary was kicking a ball and rolling a cigarette, it’s now surviving the playground bullies with their knives.
It ends on the downbeat conclusion that “soon there’ll be nothing worth fighting for” and, while it may well be “a rollicking folk song” (at least once past the drone intro), Eliza Holt comes from the name (along with several others) on a headstone in an 18th century psychiatric hospital graveyard near to where he grew up, research revealing how unmarried mothers would be sent to such places to spend the rest of their lives, mothers and babies buried together.
A little uplift is in much need at this point, so welcome A Queen In Her Own Way, another track breaking the six-minute mark, which, White on harmonies and Piner complementing the acoustic guitar, is a deeply personal, chimingly melodic celebration of his late paternal grandmother across three generations and moves from how “She’d tie up the laces on your worn-out football boots/Button your blazer each morning before you had school” through births and weddings to standing the pew at her funeral. Achingly moving, there’s a hint that “somewhere out on the road” he didn’t make it back before she passed, giving extra resonance to the Americana-tinged final track, Every Flame on which, joined by gospel-style harmonies, he declares his determination to follow his musical journey, however rough the going gets, and “ride it till the wheels come off”, his salvation in “the rumble and the roar”.
Prior to that, there are two remaining numbers, This Ain’t Love (But It’ll Do), a bluesy midtempo stomp inspired by the contrived true romances of reality TV shows and how “On paper the perfect match/Real life weren’t up to scratch”. The other marks the first time he’s recorded a cover version, sweating in the pressure cooker by opting to make that Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where The Time Goes. Many have tried and failed, but featuring just him, his guitar and White’s harmonies, it’s a stunner and if there’s streaming in the afterlife I’m sure Sandy would be giving it the thumbs up too.
Five albums in, astonishingly he’s never won a Radio 2 Folk Award, never figured in the Top 100 and is still mostly playing small clubs. It’s bloody well time that changed and this really should be the one to do it.
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This post was written by Luke