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Jon Boden Jon Boden
Album: Afterglow
Label: Hudson
Tracks: 10(+10)

A lot has happened in the seven years since Jon Boden released his second solo album, Songs From The Floodplain, which formed the first instalment of a projected dystopian-themed trilogy. He’s managed to keep a dizzying number of musical plates spinning in the air, in which context it’s miraculous, simply amazing how he’s found the time and energy to write, let alone deliver Afterglow (part two of the aforementioned trilogy), which coming from any artist would be considered a pretty major undertaking but in Jon’s case has assuredly also to be regarded as something of a magnum opus.

The scenario for Afterglow is “a near-future world where the luxuries and comfort of 21st century life have become scarce and a harder, simpler existence now prevails”. Against this backdrop, specifically a scene of decaying buildings, burning oildrums and homemade fireworks, is played out, in the context of an urban street festival, the central narrative of two lovers trying to find one another. A key inspiration to Jon in the creation of this setting was the almost feral wildness of Bonfire Night festivities in the Sussex coastal town of Lewes, where the narrow streets are jammed with revellers and barrels of burning tar are dragged along – all in all, a somewhat scary experience. And the unsettling, precarious, slightly unsafe feeling this generates is mirrored by the restless, edgy music.

What might appear something of a paradox, perhaps, is that the “harder, simpler existence” is portrayed in music of comparative opulence and textural complexity, which lends the narrative a further distinct feel of unresolved unease. The sound world Jon conjures for the album Afterglow is at the same time futuristic and retro. For some of the time I hear a distinct 80s vibe in fact; and (though it seems slightly awkward making this observation) specifically in Jon’s vocal on (especially) opening track Moths In The Dark Light and Dancing In The Ruin an uncanny resemblance to David Bowie circa Ashes To Ashes. But even outwith that observation, John’s singing is strong and charismatic throughout the album, and probably at a peak right now, with great assurance and a fast developing gravitas – and increasing credibility as a chansonnier too, one might say. In that respect, Jon provides a kind of auteurial unity of expression in the shifting sands of the musical settings and the often elusive strand of the narrative which is pursued through a succession of mood-swings, in turn euphoric or meditative. Jon’s lyrics possess a disquieting poetry that also conveys a special kind of intimacy and involvement both through its imagery and expression. And yet there he stands defiant in the cover photo, viewing it all from above with a kind of involved-voyeuristic detachment – despite the fact that he’s also so obviously part of it there in the thick of it all happening in the city below. Curious; it can all be quite challenging to get one’s head and mind round, indeed – and it will probably take more than a few plays before you find the contours of the melodies, let alone the onward progression of the narrative, making much sense, for a start. The succession of the songs is bewildering, but also highly exhilarating, rather like a headlong plunge in the Tardis through a less familiar (to the folk audience) and even potentially somewhat alienating stylistic universe.

In stark contrast to the minimalist soundscape of Songs From The Floodplain, the quasi-orchestral sound-world of Afterglow is artful, almost cinematic in its breadth and scope – Jon’s track record in making arrangements for Bellowhead has evidently fuelled (and largely informed) the ambitious approach to scoring that he’s able to adopt here. It may sound contradictory, but there’s a small-scale grandiosity on display in the orchestration, with proudly subtle touches (like mini-bursts of electric guitar on Wrong Side Of Town, oboe on Afterglow etc.) that light the blue touch paper, spark and then recede into the texture but without disappearing altogether, leaving a lingering aftertaste. The ensemble Jon has at his disposal involves his Remnant Kings band, here in an incarnation comprising Robert Harbron (English concertina), Ben Nicholls (basses), Paul Sartin (oboe, fiddle), Richard Warren (lead guitar) and Sam Sweeney (drums), with Thomas Lenthall (analogue keyboards), three string players (violin, viola and cello) and two brass players (flugelhorn and euphonium), with Fay Hield contributing some backing vocals; that’s a similar total complement to Bellowhead, but with an altogether less “monster” result. It’s a real tribute to Andy Bell’s engineering skills that the soundscape is so rich and intelligently detailed and the tricky balance managed so ably. The sound can be expansive, sure, but in an economic way that in odd passages or aspects might call to mind musical experiences as diverse as Frank Zappa, early ELO, Nelson Riddle, or some of the more impressionistic minor orchestral manoeuvres of the late-’60s. The queasy-crooning Yellow Lights evokes a heady yet hazy, disorientating and ornate autumnal-gothic Kurt Weill world; the choppy riff of Burning Streets somehow threw me back to Forever Changes and onward through B52s and even punk territory. All The Stars Are Coming Out Tonight took me past Solsbury Hill, with a sense of uplift that translates right along to the limpid beauty of the closing Aubade (literally, a morning love-song sung at dawn), deceptively simple with strong, succinct imagery and arguably the closest the album comes to the rusticity of a folk song, although here Jon climbs up through the keys to espouse a regression to an earlier state in a quest to regain positives that might have been lost. This, of course, had been prefigured in both the mellow optimism of Bee Sting and the melismatic trend of the melody line of Fires At Midnight, and to a more veiled extent on Yellow Lights, but only now reaches a kind of apotheosis. Under the circumstances, you probably can’t get much more strikingly positive than “I’ll see you in the afterglow, Under a red sun rising”.

I should mention at this stage that the album comes in two “editions” – the standard and the deluxe. The latter is especially valuable for its perspective, as it brings alongside the standard edition a second disc that presents the whole ten-track album in a continuous performance by Jon entirely solo, with guitar, “around a campfire in the woods outside Sheffield, recorded on an iPhone 5”. Lo-fi it may be, but hell, it’s a revelation, with Jon’s astoundingly expert guitar figures supporting his thrusting yet fragile, confident yet vulnerable singing that lays bare the essence and latent poetry of the imagery. A wonderfully intimate, highly concentrated performance, full of insights; and at which it feels a significant privilege to be present.

This has been a difficult review to write, as challenging as the album has been to listen to and assimilate. This, of course, is the mark of an important album… For Afterglow is much harder to make immediate musical sense of than its predecessor, and almost requires a different set of ears in order to listen to it. It sometimes screams “magnum opus”, and yet there’s something humble and almost reticent about it too, as though reluctant (albeit commendably so) to yield to the temptations of bombast. So now I need to listen to the whole album over again just to see if what I’ve written above makes any kind of sense. And hey, I’m not sure it does – so now it’s over to you readers, I guess.

David Kidman