Johnny Flynn: Been Listening

Johnny Flynn misses the benchmark set by his debut by a country mile with a poor sophomore effort.

Back in 2008, A Larum - the début LP from English "nu-folk"[1] troubadour Johnny Flynn - crept out into the world with hardly a whisper. Move forward a couple of months and A Larum was a solid feature on a whole slew of "Best of 08" lists (my own included) and pretty much everyone I spoke to had good things to say about it. Of course, prior to the record's release Johnny had already become a darling of the blogosphere, but the whole incident still felt like a case of an album becoming successful purely because it was great.

To listen to A Larum was to do so much more than simply enjoy some great music; it was a way of sticking it to "the man", showing the majors that success could be achieved on merit and not simply off the back of huge marketing budgets. It was all the good things about the internet's musical revolution writ large.

Been Listening, Flynn's sophomore effort, has been out since June this year, and has yet to recapture the excitement of it's predecessor. It's received favourable reviews from all the usual suspects, but it hasn't captured the imagination of my musical peer-group the way A Larum managed. In theory this is something off a surprise, as all the ingredients are there for it to be a hit. It has the obligatory Laura Marling collaboration, and following the continued ascent of Mumford & Sons, Noah & the Whaleet al, the success of a new record by Johnny Flynn - who appeared at first to be the doyen of the increasingly incestuous London-centric nu-folk scene - seemed pretty much assured. And Been Listening is not a bad record by almost any measure, so why has it pretty much sunk without trace?

If you want my opinion (and the very act of your reading this page is a tacit acceptance that you do), it's because all he's doing is retreading old ground. It's all well and good to pick a style that works and stick with it, but when you've produced something as accomplished and adept as A Larum, the pressure is certainly on for you to better yourself.

Follow-ups to classic albums are never easy - the expectation is always too high, the assumptions far too grand - and often bands get slated for going off in a completely different direction (just look at MGMT for a case in point). But however great the risk of alienating a fan base may seem, Been Listening serves as a poignant reminder that the alternative - simply trying to cash the same cheque twice - is a far more suicidal option.

Now you'll notice that the review reached a nice ending there; a crescendo of criticisms followed by the pleasing cadence of a pithy phrase, both profound and subtly obvious. It's a rhetorical device I use regularly to end reviews, and one that's not often as poetically pleasing as the example above, believe me; it's something I strive for, and am suitably pleased with myself whenever I can achieve it without it sounding too forced. By rights I should lay down my (metaphorical) pen there and move on to other things, and if I were a kinder man I would. Alas, dear reader, I am not; I feel somehow compelled to pile yet more criticism at the door of poor Johnny.

The fact of the matter is that, whether by design or twist of fate, the success of A Larum (and it's accompanying demos and live performances) set Johnny Flynn up as a figure head of the current "scene". He was our white knight, our champion, our saviour. Flynn's music was the bench mark against which all the other nu-folkies were judged, he set the standard to aspire to. So for him to turn around and present us with a record as stayed and unambitious as Been Listening is quite frankly insulting.

To make a bad album can be excused - most people are just not particularly talented, and therefore a certain amount of dreadful albums are to be expected - but to already have shown yourself to be capable of genius and to then release an album that is merely mediocre; now that is inexcusable.

I'll concede that A Larum was not one-hundred-percent genius, but there were flashes of it in evidence: Flynn has a beguiling flair for the English language, particularly the colloquial and archaic, and the awareness of timbre and texture shown on A Larum was astounding. He's clearly capable of much more than he's giving us with this new record.

But could I be reading too much into Flynn's intentions? Maybe his first record was an astounding collision of chance and coincidence; just a case of Flynn being the right man in the right place at the right time? It's not inconceivable: what little promotional material there was for A Larum suggested that he'd fallen into music by accident - being a touring actor by trade - and the ramshackle, DIY vibe on the record could simple be nothing more than what it appears to be; i.e. a group of talented players with next to no idea how to record themselves properly. But for it to surface at the same time as that "sound" was gaining commercial viability?

Coupled with the fact Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson were both making real strides forward into the marketplace at the time, and every rom-com/chic-flick going seemed to be cashing in on it, it feels like far too much of a coincidence. The swinging vote in this argument is cast by Flynn himself on Been Listening; by the very nature of his success, his second record should sound better than his first. That's not to say the songs ought to be better, or the artistic vision should be clearer - lord knows they often aren't in second albums - but the the more effable side of things should surely be more accomplished.

But Been Listening still sounds as if it were recorded in an abandoned warehouse with broken-down equipment, which by this stage in his career can be nothing other than a conscious choice. For better or worse, he's aping the sound that brought him so much attention with his first record, and who can blame him? I can, for one.

Disclaimer: please note that, while based on real characters and situations, some of opinions in this post have been exaggerated for dramatic effect. The opinions contained within are in no way representative of the opinions of the author, and are intended purely for the purposes of entertainment.

  1. A ghastly genre label, but one that has unfortunately managed to attach itself irrevocably to the current crop of London-based folksy bands. Every time I type it I can feel myself dying a little inside. ↩︎

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