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. If you'd never heard Mumford and Chums Country Mile would be at least 50 per cent improved as a listening experience. Sadly we're now programmed to hear a certain flavour of earnest folk and go 'urgh!' It's become a Pavlovian response, a gag reflex, and it must be a millstone around poor old Johnny Flynn's neck.
That said, he really doesn’t help himself- there are moments on Country Mile so appallingly twee they don’t just stop at parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, they stock a full spice-rack of quaint English flavours. Flynn’s lyrics are the worst offender; while his stock-in-trade is a kind of wistful earnestness amid idyllic imagery, occasionally he turns in dross that makes Sixpence None The Richer sound like Public Enemy. "The lady looked us over” goes ‘After Elliot “she told us ‘now you stay quite still and I'll fetch in some clover’"... "Holly-go-lightly bright as the day,” goes the chorus ”fresh as the moon and stale as the hay". It’s unforgivably trite. At one point he tells us that “then we took some tea" which is probably the point in the recording process where the lyrics got written, during a quick break over biscuits. No other explanation is possible, although perhaps accusations of overt tweeness are a little unfair on album that actually has a song called ‘Fol-De-Rol’: we should know what we’re getting.
It’s a shame the lyrics are so half-cooked, because musically Country Mile contains some genuinely robust and enjoyable songcraft. Flynn is like a good carpenter - his melodies and chord progressions are wonderfully well constructed and there’s something admirable about his sturdy craftsmanship, even if whole is ultimately a little wooden. There’s an analogue warmth and a comfort to almost every song, belaying the references to winter and chills that crop up throughout. Opener ‘Country Mile’ is great, its satisfyingly muscular drop having the feel of a vintage radio session. Stronger still is debut single ‘The Lady Is Risen’, with its haunting backing vocals and smoky Sixties guitar and brass. The words might not be much cop, but when they tumble out of Flynn as they do here, and later on the Wurlitzered ‘Bottom Of The Sea Blues’ they achieve a momentum and flow that does impress.
The album peaks with its most gentle moments. ‘Gypsy Hymn’ is exactly as its title suggests - the melody sounds centuries old, its harmonies feeling genuinely hymnal, while the gentle waltz of ‘Einstein’s Idea’, about Flynn’s two year old son, is properly lovely. Here those plain lyrics stop feeling twee and become admirably uncomplicated. As he sings the “oh my darling” refrain of the chorus the affection feels genuine. Despite the harvest festival charm that carries the record, its heart is here, at its starkest, most honest moments.
6Marc Burrows's Score