Johnny Flynn is one of the ‘nu-folk’ groups of the mid to late 2000’s, along with the likes of Laura Marling, Mumford And Sons and Noah And The Whale. While his contemporaries have had - in some cases- massive commercial success, Johnny always flew somewhat under the radar. In recent years, however, he’s catapulted himself into the limelight, mostly through his acting in Twelfth Night (alongside Stephen Fry), a lead role in Channel 4’s Scrotal Recall and a film playing Anne Hathaway’s love interest. While he’s a very good actor (as is his brother Jerome Flynn who plays Bronn in Game of Thrones, and was formerly one half of Robson and Jerome - the more you know), Johnny Flynn is an extremely talented musician. He’s currently on three albums, but his debut A Larum remains one of the best records to come out of that time and music scene, combining a lyrical prowess that is rarely matched (he and Laura Marling are alike in that sense) with a strong band and great musicianship - he often tours with the band The Sussex Wit, which includes his sister, Lily. While his later albums develop his sound into somewhat thicker and darker creations, A Larum is fresh, fun and a wonderfully well rounded record.
Generally, the album’s sound is what many would call ‘folksy’. There are strong guitars, fiddles and everything else you’d expect, but it’s not exactly the hardcore folk of Ireland and Scotland. Instead, it’s a combination of Flynn’s strong British singing with cheery, upbeat melodies. Songs like Tickle Me Pink and Sally are prime examples of this ‘nu-folk’ genre. In the latter, Flynn sings: “I’m a plough and you’re a furrow; I’m a fox and you’re a burrow”, in a slightly tongue-in-cheek love song about a girl named Sally who wears a daisy chain and a frock. There is a light hearted tone to these tracks which are an important part of their impact; the listener enjoys them, because of their stories but also because we feel like they’re made to be enjoyed. Even discussing having to find meals in bins in Leftovers, Flynn encourages us to have fun, as he does with himself: “second place is just my style, just like glasses for the blind.”
It’s not all racing rhythms and happy endings, though. A standout track on this record, Brown Trout Blues, sees Flynn turn introspective: “I could be somewhere else, I should be someone else, but you wouldn’t know me if I was.” The gentle resonator guitar is the perfect backing track to such thoughtful lyrics, and in true Johnny Flynn style, the bold trumpets which have a solo are a perfect contrast, without being overpowering. Bands like Beirut employ similar techniques in their music, juxtaposing uncertain lyrics with a bold trumpet that sounds completely sure of itself. This makes for a more powerful impact, as the listener can revel in the conflicting ideas of these two elements. Brown Trout Blues come just after the not-so-serious Tickle Me Pink, highlighting Flynn’s full range as a songwriter. The album doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously, and yet there are moments when the hectic instrumentals are stripped back to almost nothing, and we’re able to see just how well Flynn can craft a feeling through song. While it’s not the saddest song you’ll ever hear, there’s a vulnerability nestled in this track and others which is really endearing. It’s not just the slow songs either; in the interestingly titled Wayne Rooney, Flynn repeats: “If I know better, I don’t know better,” which harks back to that uncertainty portrayed in Brown Trout Blues. These nuggets of self doubt are nestled into grander narratives in this particular track, from elephant hunters to a barman who looks like George Best. The instrumental in this song typifies the subtle and yet successful build ups which end in a somewhat raucous musical climax that Johnny Flynn does so well
Lyrically, The Wrote And The Writ is one of the strongest tracks on A Larum. It reaches the point of poetry in some places, exploring religion (‘the wrote’) and one’s own power to write themselves, such as in letters. It even gets a namecheck in Alt J’s Matilda: ‘Just as Johnny Flynn says, the breath I’ve taken and the one I must (to go on)’.
All in all, this album shows off many of Johnny Flynn’s vast talents. Firstly, and most importantly, the lyrics are inventive and fresh, unlike most of even what his contemporaries and friends were producing in 2008. Secondly, he incorporates interesting instruments, many harking back to true folk music, and uses them cleverly to get the most out of what he’s singing. Lastly, he encourages us to have fun with this record, which I do every time I listen to it. For these reasons alone, this should be an album you listen to before you die.