Sir Vincent Lone is the alter-ego of Jackie Leven, former Doll By Doll frontman, and longtime singer-songwriter. Doll By Doll fans will tell you they were chronically overlooked in the melee that was punk – intelligent commentators whose voice was drowned out by the louts.
However this album, if it can be said to have a coherent thread, explores Leven’s relationship with American folk music of the 60s.
Taking on another persona allows a lot of performers to escape from their own reputations and the expectations of their audience (or indeed detractors), but this particular disguise comes, according to Leven, from the simple fact that he was writing a lot of material and waiting to release them as Jackie Leven albums frustrating “because I am a writer of genius.” He’s a writer of wryness too, as demonstrated by songs like Straight Outta Caledonia (a kitsch, cornily-produced tribute to “My land of songs… songs of sorrow, songs of night”).
This new persona allows him to try on a lot of different musical styles, and to simplify tunes and settings, allowing the words to come to the fore. A number of the pieces are rambling, Dylanesque poems, moments of sensation, a few brief visual impressions crystallised in song.
The lyrics to the opening track, Moscow Train, apparently inspired by a conversation with Bob Dylan about the Moscow underground system, lay uneasily over a simple, electronic beat that does nothing to suggest the motion of trains but does give a cold, mechanical feel to the song. Strange fragments of synthesised voice add another layer of aural discomfort as Leven contrasts the ‘marching feet and all that crap’ of Soviet military shows with a religious and traditional images of ‘ancient sails’ and a boat that ‘waits alone in the starlit mud, varnished black by the saviour’s blood’.
The Lights Below offers just voice and guitar, Leven’s faintly Scottish, faintly American twang purring then rising sharply, little pinpricks to remind you that this is not an album of nice, soft songs no matter how many haunting guitar refrains it may contain. Each line is a beautiful fragment, and Leven contrasts poetic language with the brutally ordinary, just as he does in the preceding track, the brief, singsongy The War Crimes of Ariel Sharon, in which the politician taking phone calls on the toilet and picking his nose is transported back to a moment in childhood which, although described in beatific language, is the moment at which he becomes capable of terrible things.
Each song requires some dedicated listening to get the best out of it. The delivery is not showy, the phrasing careful but rarely inspired. Most of the tunes are direct and repetitive, throwing up memories of various kinds of folk songs. Perhaps the most effective use of these traditional overtones is on In Search of Stone, about people who’ve disappeared, presumed dead. The freedom to do anything is, in its way, this album’s undoing. It has little shape (although perhaps in these days of downloads complaining that albums don’t have shape or coherence is beside the point), and tails off towards the end.
Everything here is at least interesting, sometimes sweet, sometimes unsettling, but it jumps from one mood to another relentlessly, a restless ragbag of fascinating scraps.