Amid all the fears of global financial meltdown and risingunemployment, one small niche sector that still seems to be thrivingis that of the acoustic singer-songwriter. From the Dickensian-namedBenjamin Francis Leftwich and reinvented boy band bratCharlie Simpson to latest chart sensation Ed Sheeran, it seemsnot a month goes by without the emergence of a new earnest youngtroubadour, trusty guitar in one hand, a copy of Nick Drake’sFive Leaves Left in the other.
At the age of 35 and with a Mercury Prize nomination already underhis belt for his 2006 debut The End Of History, Ireland’s Fionn Reganis a veritable veteran compared to much of the competition, and it’sthis musical maturity that stands him in good stead on his latestrecord 100 Acres Of Sycamore. While others overstretch themselves insearch of emotional profundity and end up sounding schmaltzy andcontrived, Regan has the confidence to simply relax and let thingsflow naturally.
After the folly of 2010’s The Shadow Of An Empire, on which Reganstrayed perilously close to tribute act territory while attempting torecreate the dynamic of Bob Dylan going electric, the CountyWicklow native has wisely decided to go back to what he does best.But as well as the lilting acoustic guitars and gossamer melodies thatmade The End Of History a success, we also get the added richness ofsome much more expansive arrangements, with some delightful,shimmering strings in particular lending 100 Acres Of Sycamore adistinctive, pastoral feel.
As the album title hints, both the music and lyrical contentstrongly evoke the natural world. After the bleak, portentous titletrack, which brings to mind a Nick Cave murder ballad, we getSow Mare Bitch Vixen’s bucolic folk, which shares the aforementionedDrake’s gift for penning a new song that manages to sound like it’s asold as the hills. Regan scales an appropriate early peak on The LakeDistrict, a soaring, piano-led paean to love on which he declares“from the landing I can hear your hay bale laughter singing/it breaksthe white horse hearts of all those assembling” before gushing “youare the Lake District/marry me, in a registry, like a foreign filmscene”. Depending on your point of view, this is either inspiredstream of consciousness poetry or meaningless twaddle, but either way,it sounds gorgeous, recalling the freeform musings of VanMorrison in one of his mellower, Celtic Twilight-inspired phases.
This track is just one of several that invite the listener to lieback and nestle snugly in the feather bed of sonic loveliness thatRegan has made up for us. On For A Nightingale he softly coos “you’rea star my little heart would be/when I saw your snow white feet” whilewe’re softly caressed by a tinkling piano and elegant violins; hisyearning voice is delicately counterbalanced on North Star Lover bysome ghostly female backing vocals; Dogwood Blossom proves thestrength of his song writing still shows up well when it’s just Reganand his guitar alone. The whole mood is one of unhurriedintrospection, with a number of songs leisurely passing the fiveminute mark.
There will be some who may find 100 Acres Of Sycamore a littleone-paced and lacking dynamism, and to be fair there are times whenall the meandering prettiness does start to sound a little samey, andthe arrangements slightly over-egged. Yet what Regan hasunquestionably created is a landscape of wide-eyed, sincere beautythat is very much his own, delivered with a poise that few of hiscontemporaries can match.