To describe Jack Harris as a folk singer would be a gross simplification. If you were to mix a heady tonic of Tom Waits, James Joyce, some turn-of-the-century poetry and a bottle of blood-crimson wine, dress it in a patched tweed jacket and lay an acoustic in its lap, that might bring you something close to the spirit of Jack Harris. He’s not so much a musician as a guitar-tinkering chronicler with a devil’s eye for detail. A husk-voiced repository of all the curiosities of the world.
His long-awaited second album, ‘The Wide Afternoon’ is a brooding, shadowy collection of eleven tales and musings, backed by the golden ripples of Harris’ masterful finger-work and lilted in a voice like a lover’s sweet nothings. His lyrics are deeply literary, filled with heart-swelling portraits of dusty academics, broken soldiers and bitter romantics. Like each gentle pluck of the strings is oiled in the ink of a thousand love poems.
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The album is a succulent blend of British and American influences, pilfering from traditional Irish folk and Americana blues with equal ease. ‘As I Walked Out One Morning’ is an antiquated folk-tune that could be centuries old, and the Luke Kelly-style ‘Rivets’ could be a confession cooed from a bridge across the Liffey. Yet ‘The Oldest Man’ shows a smokier side of Harris’ vocals, with a blues-jazz twist echoing Randy Newman, and the sprightly ‘Molly Bloom’, with its Joyceian subject matter, siphons the anthemic theatrical swagger of Suzanne Vega and Josh Ritter.
Due credit must also be paid to producer Gerry Diver, who builds on Harris’ guitar-centric first release ‘The Flame and the Pelican’ by adding all manner of folk instrumentation to the soundscape. From his impassioned violin swells on ‘Bird in the Broken Clock’ to the jangling coppers on ‘As I Walked Out One Morning’, Diver is the bricks of Harris’ shining lighthouse.
But for both Harris and Diver, the album’s zenith comes on the final track. After an album of mostly the sombre and reflective, ‘Vanished Birds’ is a wash of triumphant majesty to coax sighs from the stoniest of souls. Harris’ coded vignette of the fleeting return of the world’s extinct birds is as beautiful as it is bittersweet, and Diver’s inspired violin-work flitters like the feathered friends themselves.
There are many fine lyricists in the world. There are many fine guitar-players, and many fine singers. But what is tantalisingly rare is to encounter an individual that encompasses all three, and has the rustic wisdom to know which to use and when. Like a character sprang from the pages of a novel, Jack Harris has that wisdom. Exquisitely written, perfectly structured and lovingly crafted, ‘The Wide Afternoon’ is a lavish garden of folk music at its most soul-stirring.