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Bert Jansch
Just A Simple Soul Tom Bolton , October 26th, 2018 10:24

From his first solo releases through his years with Pentangle and on to his equally brilliant late work – an elegant, rich compilation spanning Jansch’s whole life, compiled (and with linernotes) by Bernard Butler

Just A Simple Soul is the third compilation of Bert Jansch’s solo work issued since his death in 2011. It beings with ‘Strolling Down the Highway’, the first track on his first album released in 1965 to ‘High Days’ from his final album, 2006’s Black Swan. It is no surprise that there is demand for some perspective on Jansch, nor that Bernard Butler is the man aiming to provide it. Jansch went from being a prodigy, a writer and reinterpreter who remade British folk music through lost decades, before the welcome rediscovery of his final decade. He influenced everyone from Paul Simon to Johnny Marr, and indeed Butler, but despite the acclaim for his work, a number of his albums remain obscure.

Despite the revival in his fortunes during the 2000s, his career as a performer is full of holes. It was the music he made as part of Pentangle - six albums in five years forged in the white heat of the psychedelic revolution - that made him famous. The rest of his popular reputation revolves around individual tracks which broke through into the wider consciousness, particularly ‘Needle of Death’ and his versions of ‘Angie’ and ‘Blackwaterside’, all recorded at the very start of his career, before Pentangle. Pulling together a coherent picture is hard work, even if you can track down all the albums, so a compilation makes a great deal of sense. Butler has chosen the tracks on Just A Simple Soul carefully, placing his songs, from the famous to the obscure, the early to the late, chronologically alongside one another to be judged equally. These 39 tracks, just a sample of his 30+ album output, give a powerful insight into just how good a musician Jansch was.

The signature Jansch sound, consisting of a soft but powerful Scottish voice and a finger-picking acoustic guitar style striking sparks off the strings, was complete from his first recording and remained strong all the way through his career. The big numbers live up to their reputations. ‘Angie’ explodes out of the speakers, ‘Needle of Death’ is a piece of songwriting perfection, and the unearthly picked guitar on ‘The Waggoner’s Lad’ is strange and captivating. But the revelation of Just A Simple Soul is the consistency of the material. Lesser known tracks from the 70s and 80s deserve serious attention. ‘Kittiwake’ from 1978’s bird-themed Avocet, recorded with Martin Jenkins, is a delight. ‘Sweet Rose’, a candidate for his loveliest song, was released on the 1985 album From the Outside and shows no sign whatsoever of its mid-80s origins: it is outside time, and all the better for it. The final track here, ‘High Days’ from Black Swan, is a look back at mistakes that cannot be unmade, a sobering piece of work and as brilliant as anything he ever recorded.

Jansch famously hated fame, and struggled with alcohol and illness for much of his career. But, while the memory of his personal struggles fades, the originality of his music seems to grow. As Jansch disappears into long view, it becomes clear what a giant he was. Just A Simple Soul will leave you desperate to hear every track he ever released – the real purpose of a good compilation.