When I Was On The Moon (charlesjenkins.bandcamp.com)
The idea that songs stripped back to their acoustic essence represent the ultimate test of its writing, a concept beloved back in the day of the Unplugged broadcasts, was only ever partially true. Not least because it was yet another chip on the shoulder of the rockist thinking that said dance/electronic/hip hop wasn’t the real deal or was at best a half-arsed attempt at making “proper” music.
You’d swear those taking that line had forgotten (a) just how records are made, (b) that impact and rhythm are equally important as the other stuff in ye good olde rock, and (c) that music can be about bodies not just minds. Jeez, we are capable of listening and enjoying in different ways you know.
I’ll give them this though, a melody, a voice and an instrument can be bloody marvellous. Especially when deployed by someone who writes a tune you quickly come to love better than most, brings a voice that can easily be your best friend for the next 23 or 24 minutes, and has a turn of phrase that can be wry or dry, perceptive or heart-sliding, direct or off-kilter.
Charles Jenkins’ newest album – one man, one guitar, one microphone, one bedroom - is just delightful. Sometimes sadly beautiful. Sometimes lightly rising beautiful. Sometimes just straight out beautiful.
It begins with a song that may or may not presage a love about to go awry – the tone of his voice says yes; the guitar, which feels more than a touch ruminative early ‘70s longhair, says don’t be certain; the lyrics offer hope, albeit it faint, as he sings “let the lovers kiss their way through this”. But Do Not Disturb is gone before you can decide, leaving only its gentleness lingering.
And it’s a bit like that through the rest of the album, with most of the songs barely extending past two minutes, their closeness almost brushing past. Except for the fact they leave their mark on you. Or more accurately, in you.
Sometimes it happens in a casually tossed line such as “the sun sets so each regret can make peace with the moon”, which opens A Wedding Waltz, a song which begins in retreat but ends in a toast to “someone who makes you happy too, and clouds can roll away/Yes yes yes”.
Sometimes it is in a cobweb-free folk song of rather ancient imagery like Hastings, where the likelihood of the fishing boats not returning is ever-present but then that may be all the more reason to offer this to your lover: “before I sail off to sea, oh my little baby, won’t you marry me in Hastings?”
Or it might come in the bitter taste encased in the sweet fruit of Beware The Gates Of Heaven, where a calmly picked guitar accompanies a reflection of petty but dangerous types who “got their jobs just like anybody gets their jobs – connections, family ties”, whether they are manning the gates with St Peter, or somewhere closer to our homes, exist with “their platforms raised and their gods praised/And the science reversed”.
While unabashed joy is not in evidence here, there is something of Jenkins the not-quite-cynic who can make you smile. Take Monday Nights At The Retreat Hotel, a song of the alone, a man measuring out his life without coffee spoons but rather little boxes ticked on the calendar behind the bar. Tuesday has the washing (“separating colours and cottons naturally”), Wednesdays are for the gamblers and ramblers “the emotional baggage handlers lost at sea”, and “the rest of the week plays out down a familiar path”.
Here though, in a darkly ringing echo of his more jocular Pray My Dear Daughter, from 2012, (wherein, among other disreputables he warned his daughter against marrying such as politicians, priests and journalists, he told her “don’t marry a folk singer, they’re weird and they whine and never fill the room”), he can’t help pulling a droll observation of the human landscape joining him at the front bar.
“So Mondays are for the winners/And very clean folk singers/The saints and the sinners/The bar flies, the beginners.”
The album is full of those though: observations and touches to admire, in songs that don’t need a band, or the patronising acclamation of the “real” because it’s Charles Jenkins without a band or even amplification. They’re just very, very good songs, done simply, done beautifully.