John Smith has been lauded as one to watch for some time now, attracting effusive praise from peers and press alike. He has opened for the likes of John Martyn and John Renbourn, guested with Jackson Browne and Rodney Crowell, and played sessions alongside David Gray and Joan Baez. Headlong is John’s fifth album, and the impressive rollcall continues, as he employs Cara Dillon on backing vocals and Sam Lakeman both plays and produces.
Dedicated to the memory of John’s close friend, John Renbourn, Headlong is a beautifully constructed collection of songs. John’s voice has a gravelly clarity and soulfulness that wraps itself around the listener like a warm blanket. There is some quality musicianship at work here, and Sam has done a brilliant job of weaving the accompaniment into the songs without ever detracting or overshadowing John’s gorgeous vocals and thoughtful, intelligent lyrics.
Far Too Good and Undone are cases in point, with John’s sublime guitarwork combining with the electric bass of Jon Thorne, Jay Sikora (cabasa), Kirsty Mangan (violin), Rachael Lander (cello) to deliver stunningly beautiful tracks that highlight, as well as any, the talent on display here. This brilliant collective deliver another cracker with Possession, a typically thoughtful muse: ‘Did I become obsessed with something I could never hope to hold? I didn’t know living for the journey I was dying on the road.’
Many of these songs are inspired by family. John’s wife is the source of the redemptive, unconditional love to which closing track Save My Life is indebted. She is also the Joanna of the track of the same name, acting as an emotional crutch during those long spells of life on the road. John has declared that these songs were written during long periods away, reluctant to write at home in an environment that didn’t feel natural. Yet the conflict that must be a constant for all musicians, a need to be on the road clashing with the desire to be home with friends and family, is clearly evident with tracks such as Desire, ‘Out of my mind with worry, in a kind of hurry, I wish I knew the quickest way home.’
This is a proper, grown-up album. There are no great changes in pace or style here, with the opener, Living In Disgrace about as up-tempo as it gets, yet there are no weak tracks or fillers to be found. With Headlong John has delivered not only a fitting tribute to his late friend but also made another declaration of his own talents.
High-class singer/songwriter delivers a thing of beauty.