Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: John Francis Flynn Look Over The Wall, See The Sky

River Lea
River Lea

You think you know where you are. The song is called “Within A Mile Of Dublin,” and for any outsider the music indeed soon conjures Ireland. A droning intro comes to life, a whistle leading an old-school reel — the sort of trad folk you can still hear in pubs across the country. Then things morph, mutate. A woman’s voice eerily intones the title, processed drums throb, and electronic sounds hiss and overcome the acoustic instruments at the song’s core. On his new album Look Over The Wall, See The Sky, John Francis Flynn disorients over and over. These are old songs, old sounds, old words. But in Flynn’s hands, they are transformed, the work of an artist revisiting foundational texts not to revive the past, but to process the present by imagining a different one.

In his native Ireland, Flynn is already acclaimed as one of the young artists working in the lineage of Irish trad but steering it in wildly unpredictable and adventurous directions. Like his peers/associates in Lankum, Flynn’s take on the genre often blends folk songs with more alternative-minded arrangements, so that compositions that are a hundred years old sound almost as if he could’ve written them yesterday. While Lankum’s version of trad is a heaving, haunting exorcism, Flynn’s has always been more mournful — flickers of lost dreams, images refracted and grown ragged. Tellingly, Flynn’s influences extend beyond folk history, to Dylan Henner’s The Invention Of The Human AI concept album or Dublin noise-rock experimentalists Gilla Band.

On his 2021 debut, I Would Not Live Always, he sang — haggard yet resonant, and capable of great force when needed — over arrangements in which he blended organic, traditional instrumentation with tape manipulation, or little ghostly glimmer of synthesizers. As potent as that album was, it now feels almost embryonic compared to Look Over The Wall. On his second album, Flynn’s vision has blossomed. Look Over The Wall, See The Sky sounds wracked with sadness, but makes it vivid, immersive, and strikingly beautiful.

From its very beginning, Look Over The Wall introduces a whole new world — legible thanks to its foundation in familiar tropes, but alluring and surprising. Flynn derived his rendition of album opener “The Zoological Garden” from versions by the Dubliners’ Ronnie Drew and by Brendan Behan. Though often performed jauntily, Flynn’s “Zoological Garden” begins akin to Behan’s — a sideways a cappella tale of going to the Dublin Zoo. Soon, strange celestial electronics burble to life underneath Flynn, off-kilter as if they are two separate pieces of music. It’s almost two streams of thought moving in parallel, then against each other, and only occasionally meeting to suggest the beginning of a different story entirely.

In just eight songs, Flynn stretches his source material, all of which is traditional, to its outer limits, fragmenting and remaking tales that have already been sung by many voices. “Mole In The Ground” originated as an American protest song, recorded by Bascom Lamar Lunsford in 1928; Flynn recontextualizes it for contemporary Dublin, opting to sing-speak the lyrics in a low mumble over a propulsive track of fiddle, sputtering electric guitar, and reversed sound effects. The middle of the album in particular is transfixing; it’s a series of long, patient songs, beginning with the foreboding drum machine creep of “Willie Crotty” emerging from a drone to layers of distorted, filtered harmonica and clarinet. “Kitty” is an uneasy but sweeter counterpoint, before “The Seasons” ambles along broken-down jazz affectations before giving way to the surreal “Within A Mile Of Dublin.”

On its musical merits alone, Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is a stunning level-up from an already fascinating artist. These arrangements and performances are not just pure exploration, but also philosophically driven. The aesthetic contrast of “The Zoological Garden” also sets the stakes for the album thematically, depicting Flynn’s home as something enigmatic and unreachable now. It’s an old song viewed through the mists of time, a Dublin scene viewed from the perspective of watching his city slip away.

In recent years, the Irish government has allowed Dublin to become a haven for international tech giants. As these things go, what’s good for big business is bad for the people who actually live there. Venues and old establishments are constantly shuttered for new hotel developments, with some only narrowly escaping that fate, like the hallowed Cobblestone pub — a center of trad music in Dublin, and a space near and dear to Flynn, who cut his teeth there in his late teens. Tourists continue to flock to Dublin, but residents are faced with the highest rents in Europe amidst a housing shortage. It’s a situation that, as with many desirable Western cities, has already felt untenable for years, and naturally threatens the survival of the cultural life that draws outsiders to Dublin in the first place.

For an outsider, Look Over The Wall is a already a plainly ambitious album. Its context deepens its meaning at every turn. Flynn, a native of Dublin suburbs, grapples with what his home is becoming, and layers that with meditations on, as he told The Quietus, “Irish identity, both how it is perceived and how it is lived.” Suddenly, little subterranean animals tearing mountains down while raging against the railroad men in “Mole In The Ground” resonates with contemporary resistance, as does Flynn’s assessment, also in the Quietus interview, that his decision to use “glitchy arrangements” in the outlaw tale of “Willie Crotty” symbolizes “lives being torn apart.”

This makes it all the more poignant when Flynn decides to close Look Over The Wall with the iconic “Dirty Old Town,” a song that already has a winding backstory. Originally written by the Scottish musician Ewan MacColl about the Northern English town Salford, the song has long since been embraced as part of the Irish folk tradition and decontextualized as a song about Dublin instead. Made famous by the Dubliners and then the Pogues, you could hear the song on any given evening echoing out of any given Temple Bar tourist trap. This is Flynn’s final plot twist: There is some very esoteric DNA fueling his latest work, and the last word on it all is one of the most famous and oft-performed songs in the canon.

Yet Flynn’s version, as always, is uniquely his own. Restrained and weary, accompanied by elegiac brass, Flynn’s “Dirty Old Town” could seem like a wistful goodbye, but functions just as well as a tribute. In the end, Look Over The Wall concludes as a conflicted love letter, the work of a man steeped in his homeland’s history, trying to make sense of it where it leaves him today. But most importantly, that leads him to where things go next. He wonders aloud, in the language of his ancestors, what might be revealed when you take these snapshots of Ireland and turn them over in the light of Look Over The Wall’s alternate reality.

Look Over The Wall, See The Sky is out 11/10 on River Lea.

Other albums of note out this week:

• PinkPantheress’ Heaven Knows
• Garth Brooks’ Time Traveler
• Rick Ross & Meek Mill’s Too Good To Be True
• Daneshevskaya’s Long Is The Tunnel
• Chris Stapleton’s HIGHER
• Beirut’s Hadsel
• Pure Bathing Culture’s Chalice
• Aesop Rock’s Integrated Tech Solutions
• Bad Boy Chiller Crew’s Influential
• YoungBoy Never Broke Again’s Decided 2
• 070 Shake’s Mango Tree Story
• Wiki & Tony Seltzer’s 14K Figaro
• Art Feynman’s Be Good The Crazy Boys
• “Planet Of The Bass” guy Kyle Gordon’s Kyle Gordon Is Great
• King Creosote’s I DES
• Helmet’s Left
• Foghat’s Sonic Mojo
• Hit Bargain’s A DOG A DEER A SEAL
• Aïsha Devi’s Death Is Home
• PHONY’s Heater
• Scream’s D.C. Special
• MTVoid (aka Justin Chancellor of Tool)’s Matter’s Knot, Pt. 1
• Left Cross’ Upon Desecrated Altars
• King Louie Bankston’s Harahan Fats
• Jesse Kivel’s Life And Death At Party Rock
• Anthony Pirog’s Nepenthe Series Vol. 1
• Kirsten Ludwig’s Sunbeam
• Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1
• The Lives Of Famous Men’s Greener Pasture Blues
• Vincent Neil Emerson’s The Golden Crystal Kingdom
• Calling Hours’ Say Less
• KC Rae’s Think I’m Gonna Die
• The Sleeping Souls’ Just Before The World Starts Burning
• Roadside Graves’ I Won’t Cry Alone
• Cuco’s Hitchhiker
• Vantage Point’s Against Myself
• Niecy Blues’ Exit Simulation
• jess joy’s SOURCEHEIRESS
• David Holmes’ Blind On A Galloping Horse
• Brandy’s Christmas With Brandy
• Seth MacFarlane & Liz Gillies’ We Wish You The Merriest
• The Bocelli Family’s A Family Christmas (Deluxe Edition)
• Cat Power’s Cat Power Sings Dylan: The 1966 Royal Albert Hall Concert
• R.E.M.’s 25th anniversary edition of Up
• Bush’s Loaded: The Greatest Hits 1994-2023
• L.S. Dunes’ Lost Songs: Lines And Shapes demos album
• Coco & Clair Clair’s SEXY (Deluxe Edition)
• Speakers Corner Quartet’s Further Out Than The Edge (Deluxe)
• Fenne Lily’s Big Picture (Expanded Edition)
• Måneskin’s Rush! (Are U Coming?) deluxe edition
The Buccaneers soundtrack
• aespa’s Drama EP
• Chromatics member Adam Miller’s Illusion Pool EP
• Mia Joy’s Celestial Mirror EP
• Sara Noelle’s Four Songs II EP
• Searows’ End Of The World EP
• George Riley’s Un/limited Love EP
• Kiéla Adira’s Fool’s Croon EP
• Desire Marea’s Baddies Of Isandlwana EP
• Foodman’s Uchigawa Tankentai EP

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