Release Date: Sep 30, 2013
Record label: Transgressive
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Contemporary Singer/Songwriter, Indie Folk, British Folk
What sets Johnny Flynn apart from many of Britain's better-known new folk-revivalists is his knack for timeless, literate songwriting. Delivered with the confidence of a seasoned Shakespearian actor and the severity and humor of a young Richard Thompson, Flynn's songs come from a more arcane place in the English idiom, managing to seem both profound and conversational at once. Between his lyrical imagery and his agile, dynamic fingerstyle guitar playing there lies a substance and weight which have never been more apparent than on his third record, Country Mile.
Being a Marling disciple and—despite the mega-church tendencies of my peers—a Mumford one as well, I’ve always felt drawn to the music of Johnny Flynn. (If you don’t quite follow, Flynn, Marling, and Mumford & Sons constitute the core of what many refer to as the “London folk scene”.) But despite this peerage, Flynn has not yet seen the level of popular success achieved by his friends (admittedly, I mostly refer to Mumford), and, for a wild moment, I imagined that Country Mile might be his breakout album. Alas, the idea of a “breakout” would be approaching Flynn’s artistry in the wrong way.
So where are they now, the so-called nu-folk acts of 2009? Mumford And Sons sold a phenomenal amount of records, quickly became critics’ favourite whipping boys and have now disappeared on an “extended hiatus”. Laura Marling became the least likely resident of Los Angeles while remaining the shyest superstar yet produced by this country, and Jay Jay Pistolet confused everyone by reverting to his real name of Justin and forming The Vaccines. Arguably the most interesting figure from this new wave of British folk is Johnny Flynn.
“I’ve only got so near / I’ve only got so far,” sighs Johnny Flynn on the opening title track of ‘Country Mile’. He’s earned a right to be wistful. In the years since his and backing band The Sussex Wit’s first album (2008’s ‘A Larum’; that’s ‘Alarm’ to everyone who doesn’t speak Middle English), he’s been left in the dust of old pals Laura Marling and Mumford and Sons.
Ultimately you can blame Mumford and Sons. If their brand of poshboy folk hadn't become so utterly ubiquitous in the last few years then Johnny Flynn's likeable and occasionally quite lovely third album proper wouldn't be dragged down so often by the comparison. It's terribly unfair and it's certainly not Flynn's fault - he came from the same scene as his waistcoated, banjo-toting brethren; he carries the same influences, and in most respects he's the better act, warmer, more human, and less focused on authentic hoe-down-where's-me-washboard musicality.
Johnny Flynn moonlights as an actor, and it shows. His folk-rock has always felt a bit forced, and album number three is rootsy like the Chelsea Flower Show, blooming with mega-twee lyrics like ‘After Eliot”s “we shared the experience of being alive, and then we took some tea“. The Calexico-ish ‘The Lady Is Risen’ shows he can get close to a folky barnstormer, but on closer inspection the barn appears to be a set prop that might blow down in a stiff wind.
Johnny Flynn has been talked about as British indie-folk’s next big thing for so long he might well by now qualify as its nearly man. Having emerged among the first wave of the London nu-folk brigade, touring with Mumford & Sons and duetting with Laura Marling, his acting sideline has seen him appear in acclaimed, often Shakespearean stage roles and reportedly take a lead opposite Anne Hathaway in a film due for release next year. With so much going on, and having become a father in the interim and been namechecked in alt-J’s ‘Matilda’ as well, you might forgive Flynn for producing a fourth album – a film soundtrack, A Bag Of Hammers, received a low-key release last year – with his Sussex Wit backing band that doesn’t move too far from the milieu of his previous work.