John Jenkins - Growing Old - Stereo Stickman Review 30th April 2020
This kind of reflective, ruminative country pop is a gentle treat in these trying times. Filled with carefully-crafted melodies and a careworn and gentle vocal, it feels like the chords have been as carefully-chosen as the lyrics.
I love to find context in art, and for me, the more succinct the better. For this collection, I’m plumping for the word ‘warm’. And so listening to this album is a warming delight. Dynamics may rise and fall on our journey through Growing Old, but the lynchpin that we cleave to throughout is the Jenkins vocal. Unhurried, unapologetic, present, focused and also (you guessed it) warm. It reminds me of a milder version of the vocalist from late 80s band Lovetrain. There’s an obscure reference for you!
So, we begin with title track Growing Old. And whilst it’s a relaxing listen, there’s a restlessness to it. Brushed drums, beautifully-played guitars and the kind of pensive lyric you’d expect from such a track. It’s a warm welcome.
Daniel White is a strongly narrative-driven gem, and it’s short and sweet and features some delightful accordion-like pad work, some terrific, organic percussion voices and bittersweet and lyrical violin. It seems our Daniel has grown old without noticing, too. And then the song ends very suddenly…
Some Celtic-sounding whistles and violin feature heavily on Heartlands. Sympathetic piano pins down the track and Jenkins harmonises with his own lead vocal to warm things up even further. A slightly restless, sawing bridge part again seems to provide a metaphor for discontent and then enters into a beautiful breakdown section where strings harmonise to delicious effect. The whistles come back for the outro section and it’s a triumphant conclusion for the song.
More delightful capture and clean separation begins A Mother’s Devotion, and a slightly rockier feeling announces itself, with complex unison guitar picking and a thin organ sound haunting the background. Jenkins moves in closer to the mic for this one and he seems to be speaking even more intently to the listener. There are some more exotic chord progressions, and the unison picking exploits them to maximise their sonic impact. ‘And I wish I wasn’t filled / With so much emotion’ opines the lyric towards the conclusion, where we end on a very bittersweet, unresolved note. Well, quite.
A duet arrives in the shape of This Mountain Between Us. It’s a really satisfying song, with chords (well-chosen, as seems the standard here) never quite changing where or when we might expect based on what has come before. When Jenkins’ vocal joins the female voice, an octave apart, it’s a wonderfully warm union where ‘Together we will climb’. Another short song, genuinely disappointing when it ends.
Bear Lake County is a different prospect entirely, with tremolo guitar, banjo and other guitar textures filling out the sound. The sound palette steps up with bigger drums and a sonorous bass part, too and we are only a short distance away from cracking whips here! Jenkins gentle vocal keeps the whole focussed on the overall project.
Dying By Inches allows us to focus on the quality of the Jenkins vocal in closer detail. It swoops and relaxes and enunciates with skill and care, and we are treated to some more close harmony work. A more complex lyric to deliver on this occasion, but it’s no problem for our narrator here.
The sound of rain welcomes in Jackson’s Farm, and these are some beautiful chords right here. There’s a cinematic use of violin in a wholly dramatic and exhilarating track. Unusual chord sequences abound and the use of strings is inspired.
Halfway through the track, the bass thrums in with its boots on and nails everything down. The production here is widescreen, and the vista it conjures is rich indeed. It’s nothing short of stunning, and the variety of techniques and textures is pretty darned impressive.
From here, we go straight into the stark simplicity of the guitar and vocal of A Wiser Man Than Me. No less beautiful or considered – and perhaps is even more highlighted by comparison of the preceding production epic. Simple bass and brushed drums pick things up half way through. Unhurried and lovely.
I’m Almost Over You. Err, I don’t think you are, mate. A lovely classic arrangement, borrowing from The Beatles’ Dear Prudence in terms of chord arrangement. “Time has the power / To make things fade away’. True, but not for this love-lorn character. Very instant and timeless.
I’m Coming Home deals with a lot of very specific lyric details to paint its picture. Again harking back to memories past, it’s a wistful trip down memory lane to the lovers’ first meeting.
The Last Song is, surprisingly, not (quite) the last song. Well, it is, there’s a bonus track. Anyway, around a hypnotic set of guitar chords, the lead vocal and a whistle part jockey for prominence, enjoying a musical dialogue about memory and the ways in which it works. And then the cicadas sound on the porch and it’s all over… …until the jaunty strains of the uptempo and joyful I Just Don’t Care kicks in.
It sounds like something Edwyn Collins would hide at the end of one of his albums. It’s conversational, fun, personal and engaging and unlike anything else on the album. It has swearing and contemporary references rolled in. It’s no less skillful and not in the least throwaway, whatever the lyric suggests, but it is different.
Growing Old isn’t the maudlin collection that you might expect from the title. What it is, is an appraisal of knowledge gained and lessons learned. An exploration of feelings and the sound of stock being taken. Best of all, it’s a wander through different soundscapes and states while all of the above is going on. I have to big up Jackson’s Farm again as a personal highlight – that feels expensive in every regard. What a lovely, warm album.