Is This Contemporary Dublin?
John Francis Flynn’s Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is an easier album to like than to understand. My initial impression was that all of its individual tracks are superb. It is more a complement to than a development from his previous album I Would Not Live Always (River Lea, 2021), but without interludes or a centrepiece. Flynn’s gravelly Dublin voice is the centre of an album replete with individual and ambitious interpretations of (mostly Irish) folk standards.
But when I try to think of Look Over the Wall, See the Sky as a whole, it becomes a bit of a black box. The opening track, ‘The Zoological Gardens’, takes a familiar bawdy tune and adds to it alien, electronic harmonies more extreme than anything he has done before. (Producer Brendan Jenkinson, who also plays several instruments on the album, is co-credited for every arrangement.) Flynn’s vocal delivery is consummate, with a lovely sense of cadence and pace – but it’s the accompaniment, in equal parts bewitching and bewildering, that compels the attention here. What is Flynn saying by taking this sex comedy song and making it serious? What is he saying about traditional Irish music that he is giving it this strange garb?
Rather than answer these questions, the next track, ‘Mole in the Ground’, drops us into the middle of a different album altogether, one that sounds more like post-rock: guitar and drums create a tight loop, over which Flynn intones the lyrics to a cello counterpoint. There’s even a noisy guitar solo. You would be forgiven for not realising that this song, too, is traditional, albeit with a monotone substituting for the melody. Apart from the radicalness of this change and the richness of Flynn’s voice, this song and the opener share little of note.
The subsequent tracks take us elsewhere and elsewhere again. ‘Willie Crotty’ features Jenkinson’s live-processed clarinet, Davy Kehoe’s handheld radio and live-processed harmonica, a drum machine, and oppressive baritone drones. ‘Kitty’ is a patient exploration of texture only occasionally interspersed with Shane MacGowan’s verses. These two tunes share a closeness of sound, but that doesn’t last. ‘The Seasons’, thanks especially to fabulous playing by Caimin Gilmore (string bass) and Ross Chaney (drums), has more than a touch of free jazz about it in the loose but harmonious connection the musicians have with one another, and is clear air. Then ‘Within a Mile of Dublin’, the only instrumental track on the album (Flynn takes up tin whistle), is a reel with a demonic propulsion and martial cross-rhythm that nods to Lankum’s ‘The Pride of Petravore’ and wouldn’t be out of place at an industrial metal gig.
The album ends in a different register again, with a pair of stripped-down Ewan MacColl songs. ‘The Lag Song’, whose lyrics give the album its title, is a prison ballad which gives a context to ‘seeing the sky’ that threatens to strip the phrase of its hopefulness. By contrast, the final track, ‘Dirty Old Town’, scored for electric guitar and Jenkinson’s ethereal colliery band arrangement, strips that tune of its dirt: Flynn returns to MacColl’s original version and borrows from it a gentle affection.
It is tempting to see the musical wandering of Look Over the Wall, See the Sky as just unfocused, but for one unmistakeable through-line: its devotion to Dublin. Luke Kelly, Shane MacGowan, and Flynn’s haunt The Cobblestone are in the background throughout the album, and the songs are often about Dublin (e.g. ‘The Zoological Gardens’), associated with it (‘Dirty Old Town’), or speak to what Flynn sees as its political challenges (‘Mole in the Ground’). This also comes out in the album’s polystylism: as with Ulysses, another love letter to Dublin, Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is a peregrination through the town, sampling all its dialects and struggles. Flynn now seems to be looking over his shoulder in ‘Dirty Old Town’: at a variegated place of natural beauty and suffering, sex and injustice, that he loves unconditionally.
Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is available from www.roughtrade.com.
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Published on 15 November 2023
James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.