The Past In The Present: Look Over The Wall, See The Sky By John Francis Flynn

The Dublin singer makes a radical and unsettling addition to the living tradition of Irish folk song, finds Tom Bolton

credit: John Lyons

John Francis Flynn’s second album Look Over the Wall, See the Sky follows his solo debut, I Would Not Live Always, acclaimed on release in 2021. Flynn, also known as a founding member of Skipper’s Alley, sings and plays guitar and tin whistle on his follow-up, which affirms his striking ability to reimagine storied traditional songs through a darkly distorting 21st-century filter.

A track that makes this apparent is ‘The Zoological Gardens’, a comic, post-war song by Dominic Behan, full of double entendres about “the old cockatoo” and references to what a couple plans to get up to on a trip to Dublin zoo. In Flynn’s hands it becomes something very strange indeed – a broadcast from a different time. The production sounds like a 78, with low-level white noise throbbing in the background, creating a strong sense of apprehension. The “thunder and lightning” in the song sound like an existential threat rather than just a rainy day in Dublin. Oddly off-kilter sound effects reinforce the sense that something is fundamentally wrong, alongside Flynn’s intensely lugubrious delivery. It is a past viewed through the radioactive fallout of the atomic bomb era, an era permanently occluded by everything that separates us from it. It is very far from any romanticised ‘imagined Ireland’ yet, for all its post-punk disruption, firmly rooted in the Dublin traditional music scene.

Flynn talks about famed Dublin music venues such as The Cobblestone pub, where he played regular sessions. His take on traditional music expresses current fears of economic inequality and social dislocation in a 21st-century Ireland carved up for quick profit. It draws on the way old music was recharged by new injustice during the 1950s folk revival, for example in Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads. Flynn’s interpretations sound both timeless and as though they could not have been recorded in any other era. He makes folk music of the moment in a way that few others have achieved. It is no surprise that he is closely linked to Lankum, a band who have similarly recaptured Irish music as a powerful route to self-expression. Flynn has supported Lankum, and band members Ruth Clinton and Cormac MacDiamarda made the video for the single ‘Willie Crotty’. The song, a lament over a faithless lover, was recorded in the early 1960s by Peg and Bobby Clancy. Flynn makes it unrecognisable in an astonishing version that is awash with distant voices and static from ‘handheld radio’ played by Davy Kehoe. The song also features a melancholic solo clarinet, a Casio SK1 keyboard, harmonica and effects. Flynn’s vocals are ocean deep, under swirling torrents of interference. It is an intensely atmospheric piece.

The album cover, a glass of an emerald green fluid perched on a mossy rock, places the imagined Ireland firmly in Flynn’s sights, and he strips false sentiment and lazy cliché right out of the repertoire. The choice of tracks on Look Down Over the Wall… combines the familiar with the extremely strange, making them seem like logical partners in repertoire. The former includes ‘Kitty’, a song recorded by The Pogues on their 1984 album, Red Roses for Me about a man saying goodbye to his lover as he flees the law. Flynn sings it in his soulful bass voice, playing the part of the fugitive who seems almost in a trance as he contemplates a lonely future over snare drum and scratchy strings, which disappear into the distance as the singer himself tramps away into the hills. The latter includes opening track ‘Mole in the Ground’, a 1920s song which became known from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. It would not seem out of place on a Tom Waits album, from the outsider eccentricity of its Bascom Lamar Lunsford lyrics – “drink up your blood like wine”, “I wish I was a lizard in the spring” – to Flynn’s deadpan, basso profundo delivery, and the wild instrumentation with sawing fiddles and explosions of guitar noise.

The arrangements on Look Down Over the Wall… are at the heart of the album’s unmistakable sound. Flynn worked on all the tracks with Brendan Jenkinson, who also plays guitar, bass and clarinet. Seven other musicians also perform on the record, which sounds like the expression of a sonic world. The recording is Flynn’s vision and represents the way he plays music, but it is clear that collaboration is its rationale. When Flynn launches into an ecstatic whistle solo on ‘Within a Mile of Dublin’, he does so on the back of a mighty noise laid down by a band performing as one, tuned to the same station. The track collapses into a black hole of feedback as a looped voice repeats “a Dublin mile, a Dublin mile”. It is a glorious release of energy, pent up through tightly wound tracks that achieve their effect through restraint – a track that will make listeners book tickets to wherever they can hear Flynn and his band performing this music.

The album also includes a version of ‘Dirty Old Town’, probably the best known folk revival track of them all, where everyone from The Dubliners to The Pogues has staked their claim. Flynn, true to the traditional milieu where he draws his music, returns to the simplicity of Ewan MacColl’s original version. There is soft brass in the background, French horn and trombone, and a quietly distorted finger-picked guitar. It is beautiful and hallucinatory, transformed from social realism – an account of an actual walk, a real kiss by the factory gates – to a dream in which the past arrives as a visitation.

The tension between singing about times that are gone, by definition the subject of music that is handed down, and the existence we all have to deal with right now, can be heard throughout Look Over the Wall…. This is the core of Flynn’s originality, the means by which the album speaks to us and the reason it has so much power. John Francis Flynn builds originality from a shared legacy which, from Dominic Behan to Shane MacGowan, is in constant motion. Traditional music lays out the contradictions of existence for us to recognise and claim. Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is an album full of generosity and insight, songs that show us to ourselves in the way perhaps only folk music can.

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