Part two of round-up day on MFAGW comes in the form of my Christmas Day show for DIY Radio, a (mercifully for some, I’m sure) mostly presenter-free episode where I played a stream of my favourite Folk Bloke tracks of the year. If nothing else, it’s a bloody good line-up of music – Bill Callahan, Alessi’s Ark, Saintseneca, Rob St. John and, obviously Josh T. Pearson all make appearances. If you want an hour of delightful music to reminisce on, stick it on and lay back.
“Singer-songwriter” might as well be a genre now. So much emphasis is placed on the fact that certain artists lack a band (even though the more egomaniacal of the species might routinely lug some nameless group of strumming homunculi around with them) that the actual nature of their music gets lost somewhere along the communication highway. It seems that with the singer-songwriter’s craft being based around singularity, we choose to focus intently on them and the stories they have to tell and, inevitably, new entrants to this particular pantheon now pride themselves on their individuality – lyrically, musically and literally. Rob St. John, however, seems to have missed this particular phenomenon. The Edinburgh-based songster’s debut album is a thing of uncommon equivocacy, a piece that eschews the trappings of the “one man and his guitar” mentality and instead draws its numerous influences and interpretations around it like a warm blanket, as comforting as it is inviting.
It’s tempting to class Weald as folk album – St. John himself admits to a fascination with rural British physical and cultural landscapes, the figurative realm of so much traditional music – but to do so would be to miss so much of what makes this such a captivating listen, not to mention affirming that singular nature we talked about earlier. ‘Sargasso Sea’ incorporates a guitar line that hums with bluesy energy, ‘Domino’ rumbles with an, albeit subdued, Waits-ian ragged stomp and atonality and the restless, tumbling fingerpicks of ‘Emma’s Dance’ waver between classical forms and the cloud-borne elegance of the late Bert Jansch. It’s a pastiche then, but a grounded one – every musical decision made has been rooted in St. John’s own interests, not left to wander. Weald, then, isn’t some postmodern sonic safari but a record marked by the homely ease of an artist feeling free to explore his musical loves in his own way – paradoxically individual and multiplicitous.
That paradox makes itself known in the vocals, the thick, Northern-inflected tones that could so easily dominate or fall flat alongside the candlelit instrumentation they accompany. Sounding constantly close to the speaker, the effect is one of allowing the rest of the arrangement to surround them. Singing saws, harmoniums and diegetic noise add colour to the sketch St. John creates, a rich set of tales reverberating with poetic turns of phrase alongside the vivid imagery of the oral tradition that underpins so much of folk music. Opener ‘Your Phantom Limb’ may be the closest thing to a pop song on the album, swaying with the energy of a chorus that would teeter on the edge of anthemic if it weren’t for how frail it sounds, but it’s the lyrics that become the most memorable thing about it. “With my sword hand singing / My hangnail grin” is the kind of lyric that at once puzzles and evokes a great deal, and represents one of many moments on the album where the wordplay stops the listener in their tracks, refuses the casual immediacy of simply being swept away by a tune. It’s not a jarring experience, rather one that rewards contemplation, both in deciphering the meanings and in considering the music itself a little more as you do.
It’s ridiculous to refer to music as an “experience”, a lazy way of saying that an album simply draws the listener’s ear more than an average example might, but there’s no doubt that much of Weald is concerned with experiences. There’s no confessional nature or well-drawn character to cling onto, but in their absence lie singular moments that place the listener into the panorama the music creates: ‘Stainforth Force’s slowly resolving field recording intro, the deliberately hollow echo of St. John’s vocals in ‘An Empty House’ or ‘Sargasso Sea’s interplay between the lonely guitar line and billowing backing vocals. These are all points to be remembered, absorbed and, yes, experienced too, and it’s this communicative feeling that makes Weald special, surprising and utterly magnificent.