Luke Jackson’s most recent album, Journals, was one of my Top 10 for 2020. He also recorded Retrain, to my mind the finest song of the year, written in response to the Chancellor’s suggestion that musicians and others in the creative arts affected by the pandemic should learn new skills. Recorded as one of his YouTube sessions, it was never officially a single; however, now given a studio treatment with the addition of trio members Elliott Norris providing electric guitar, mandolin and percussion and bassist Andy Sharps and backing vocalist Lizzie White. Available as a digital download, the EP title, ‘Of The Time’, reflects that all seven songs were written in the moment, between March and November of last year and, as such, inevitably reflect the situation under which people were living.
It begins with another from his streaming sessions, the sparsely strummed I Am Not Okay With This, opening with stark lines “Did we wake up to judgement day this morning …The man in charge looks troubled on the TV and doesn’t have a single thing to say/So here it is now knocking at our front door, never thought that there would come a day/When we couldn’t simply switch off all these problems by waving a cheque for someone else to pay”.
Addressing the selfish mass panic buying that stripped supermarket shelves and the government’s call to revive the wartime ‘bulldog spirit’ (“as if that alone will help us see this through/As if talking about the past will help us win this”), it’s an aching, reflective contemporary blues as he concludes “Once the dust has settled down, hope that we remember how/The world was held to ransom as nature changed her script/Maybe we can learn from this”. Fuelled by anger, despair, frustration and a deep humanity, it’s one of the finest songs he’s written, which is saying a lot.
Driven by a solid strummed guitar rhythm, Keep It Down kicks the tempo up to a swagger for its doomsday panic lyrics (“there’s people outside on the streets running wild screaming everybody’s soon to meet their maker/And I’m guessing they got a little carried away when reading the morning paper”) as it addresses how many cashed in on media-fuelled fear while self-appointed keyboard warriors (“who in real life would say a damn word”) spread rumour and misinformation from the comfort of their four walls.
By way of a thematic change, Tiny Windows is a simple fingerpicked love song about opportunities missed through not making the effort (“Once I saw love standing sweetly on a hill, she was calling me up to her side/But the hill looked more a mountain that never seemed to end, didn’t think it was worth the climb”), and the need to throw open the curtains on what life can offer and adopt a positive mindset because “if you don’t buy the ticket or even turn up to the race, how the hell you gonna win the prize?”
The musical mood remains breezy with a ragtime feel for Milk & Honey (featured in the latest Folk Radio UK Folk Show here), a playful tale of befriending a losing streak gambler who gets beaten up in a bar, getting into a chat and being accorded worldly wisdom on how to handle life’s ups and downs (“He said all I really need to help me see things through/Is a bar that’ll serve me a little more in a glass that’s fit for two”) and that “People spend too long wrestling with their worry and never seem to win” so “just keep moving with the wind”.
It’s followed by the magnificent, sad and spare Retrain, essentially a song about the healing power of music and its ability to pierce the emotions and fix the broken parts. Perhaps it’s just best to quote the lyrics: “With no song left to sing, no joy that music brings, no art to cast its light on darker days/No answer my friend blowing in the wind, just broken souls who were once told to retrain”.
Having referenced Dylan, there’s a definite musical nod to him and Guthrie with the strummed bouncy dustbowl folk shuffle of Nothing But Time, a good old thigh-slapping number that casts a lighthearted look at the unexpected and unwanted enforced free time (“Maybe I’ll paint the shed again, maybe I’ll mow the lawn, find different ways to waste up all my days/I’ll watch the kettle boil a hundred different times, in a hundred different ways”), the itch of missing playing live turning the topic towards himself in the hope that “Soon they’ll strap me to the stage, and they’ll hand me a guitar and once again they’ll let me play”.
It ends with another introspective masterpiece, the meditatively fingerpicked mental health-themed Blinding, world-wearingly reflecting on not being cynical and losing your shine, about getting lost in doubt and confusions, keeping your spark alive but realising that it’s okay not to always feel okay “Cos even the sun gets a little tired of being blinding”. A magnetising live performer and a songwriter of rare genius, with a singularly distinctive voice grained with timeless emotions, capable of reducing you to tears or filling you with euphoria, Jackson is incontrovertibly one of the greatest performers and songwriters to which this country has given birth and Of This Time speaks not just to the ‘here and now’ but to the ‘eternal and the universal’.
Mike Davies/Folk Radio UK January 2021
Categorised in: Reviews
This post was written by Luke