Another brethren of the insanely prolific London anti-folk scene, Johnny Flynn has always seems more mature than his counterparts, always vying towards medieval majesty rather than twee strumming – in short, far more likely to stay up all night studying Shakespeare than crying over a breakup.
His debut album A Larum was all Appalachian, old-soul weariness, punctuated by his lucid lyrical flights of fancy. His style can be compared to US freak-folkie Joanna Newsom’s, however, while Joanna is happy to witter on about Sawdust & Diamonds, Johnny Flynn is far happier dwelling on rubbish dumps and vagrancy. If Joanna Newsom is the archetypical medieval princess, then Johnny Flynn is the impish, impoverished court minstrel.
His achingly wholesome, plaid-clad and golden-haired good looks only add to this idealistic image; it’s easy to image him as the straight-A, golden boy of his school – perhaps the head boy and captain of the rugby team. He’s a new strain of folkie – rather than emulating the slightly grotty, bearded, Will Oldham-ish unkemptness of US folkies, Johnny Flynn is clean-shaven and squeaky-clean – he’s the kind of boy your mother would love.
And on his Sweet William EP, it seems Johnny Flynn has immersed himself deeper into centuries-old balladeering – A Larum had, at least, some slight nods to contemporary music, such as the chugging, bluesy electric guitar on ‘The Wrote and The Writ’, but there are no such concessions made here – each track is set upon a never-changing backdrop of sweet, rolling guitar chords and dusty, plucked mandolin, with occasional intervals of swirling strings.
On a lesser artist, this kind of unashamedly nostalgic olde-worlde appeal would seem like a gimmick, but our Johnny has enough substance to merit this style- while it’s not horribly stylistic, it’s not terribly inspiring stuff, either – it’s clear Johnny Flynn’s adoption of this olde-worlde gib – however well he may execute it – leaves him with a limited, muddy palette. As pretty as the lilting guitar line and rising strings are on ‘Trains (Rose, Mary and Time)’ are, they’re still a familiar formula – they’ve been done before by countless folk singers, and will be done again. An artist of Johnny Flynn’s undeniable talent (he has a bluesy, throaty whine of a voice that calls attention to a veritable catalogue of prestigious influences – from Oldham to Dylan) shouldn’t limit himself to just playing folk; he has the kind of voice that could lend itself to various genres.
However, there is one track here that bucks the trend – EP closer ‘Drummer’ begins on a slapping, grinding drumbeat and moody piano, and finds Johnny muttering uncharacteristic lyrics – ‘Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse’. Perhaps its no coincidence that this latest release has been his deepest furrow into medieval nonsense yet – a kind of final hurrah before this wanderer picks up his bindle and takes on a different path altogether. I’ll look forward to it.