For years, I thought Jackie Leven was a woman. I admit it. But come now, how many men named Jackie have made a name for themselves? There’s Jackie Milburn, Newcastle United’s great centre-forward from another epoch, and Jackie Mason, eminent Jewish comedian, but precious few beyond that. It wasn’t until I saw Leven in concert that I realised this large, unkempt, slightly brutish figure was, with complete certainty, not female.
Leven’s career began in the ’60s under the pseudonym of John St Field, before forming Doll By Doll, a punk band that lasted four years. Afterwards, his solo career was affected by a couple of unfortunate incidents: he was attacked (unprovoked) in the street in 1984 and was left unable to speak for two years, having been nearly strangled. He then became addicted to heroin. He regrouped in 1994 and has released over a score of albums since.
His latest is gruff, boozy with a hint of utter tragedy, yet with a self-deprecation and charming confusion. Its sense of determination and insistence on cheekiness draws comparisons with Bob Dylan‘s Modern Times, released last year.
Both Dylan and Leven know their vocals are pretty shot, so they use it bemoan and crystallize the tragedy of getting old, the theme of many songs on Oh What A Blow That Phantom Dealt Me. The slow road to death seems to be taken lightly, but it is only after a few listens that one can become fully impressed with the album’s gravitas.
Kings of Infinite Space addresses the everyman problem of enduring build up of tumultuous memories as one reaches dotage. It’s a song John Martyn may have recorded early in his career before all that jazz, with horns and smooth (ish) vocals and a startlingly simple and sweet melody, given the rest of the album. And yes I’m aware John Martyn is used as a point of reference in at least one in three reviews these days.
Much of this album is typical of an English folk artist: what with ambiguous and introspective odes to a remote sweetheart (The Silver In Her Crucifix) and gloomy lines such is, in Childish Blues, “I keep up with these terrible times / Read my paper on the district line / I’m lonely – lonely as I read the news / Lonely on my own with the news, blues and reviews.” We’ve all been there.
But this typicality is imbued with something a bit special: Johnny Dowd. This singer-songwriter from Texas is a proper genius and has a number of savage, unclean and spooky albums behind him that take Americana and add to it an irresistible nightmarishness.
Leven enlists him to add background vocals to a couple of tracks and spoken narrative to The Skaters. Dowd adds a gothic mood to the record that is cinematic and uniquely American. Vox Humana and One Man One Guitar are both masterpieces, telling tales of drifters and travellers with a common perspective on loneliness in a desolate landscape, from two men from the dustbowls of Fife and Ithaca, respectively.