Exemplary Work From A Legendary Musician
If one had the time, paper and endless information on influences, one could draw a line from each of today’s popular singer-songwriters that would inevitably lead to Bert Jansch. A Scottish-born folk musician who gained prominence in the 1960s, Jansch’s work has a stripped-down and lovely melodic quality that gave him legendary status and undoubtedly struck his contemporaries — a quality he kept polishing his entire life.
After breaking out on his own as an impressive, innovative guitarist, Jansch played with the band Pentangle before diving back headfirst into a solo career in the mid-1970s that stretched into the 21st century and earned him accolades throughout the industry. Younger artists including Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart began to collaborate with Jansch, as did other players of his generation like Neil Young and Eric Clapton, until he passed away in 2011.
Though his discography is massive, Jansch completed a slew of solid albums in the 1990s. Now three of these albums, plus a collection of demos and rarities, have been brought together in the boxset Living in the Shadows, providing hours of soothing, calm music that familiarize a listener with Jansch’s strengths.
The collection includes the Celtic-influenced The Ornament Tree from 1990, 1995’s bluesy When the Circus Comes to Town and the purer folk collection Toy Balloon from 1998. The rarities disc Picking up the Leaves contains unreleased tracks, including an instrumental with John Renbourn, which will be a treat for established Jansch fans given its demos.
The fact that all these songs were all recorded within the span of a decade and can still sound so cohesive together speaks volumes to Jansch’s tried-and-true style; this is an artist who was so skilled and confident in his craft at this stage in his life that he made his music the way he wanted, devoid of overt influence from trends. His voice has a muted, throaty tone that is distinctive and recognizable, low in its tone and sometimes muttering in its pronunciations that adds a mystery to all he sings.
The Ornament Tree has the most traditional feel, with flutes and marching drum beats that pay homage to music of his ancestors. There’s a reverence and a sense of place, especially with the melodies and phrases that could be found in centuries-old Celtic folk tunes. Circus has the most upbeat tracks, the ones most suited for dancing or sing-a-longs. It also contains some of his strongest lyrical work. “Step Back” begs for perspective with a mournful fiddle backdrop, and a message that stands the test of decades. Strong yet graceful female harmonies occasionally chime in, like on “Just A Dream.”
While Jansch’s telltale sound is a perfectly simple marriage of acoustic strings and vocals, he does well with a bigger band behind him, playing off of other players. A track like “Stealing the Night Away,” with a little bit of swing and electric guitar solo, adds feel and warmth, which makes the listener lean in even further when the acoustic songs return. It is in those quiet tracks that the impressive parts of his playing really come through, the way he can hold down lower notes and play higher melodies creates a full, fleshed-out sound that any guitarist worth their salt is wont to try and mimic.
Lyrically, Jansch’s topics run the gamut from the world at large, to women up close. He is an observer, with lots of scenes and nouns to add visuals to his words. While his structure is fairly standard, comprising verses, choruses and bridges, he’s not married to rhyming, giving the lyrics a natural ebb and flow, the rhythm of a conversation.
Toy Balloon kept some of the blues and jazz influences, with harmonicas and minor scales aplenty. But it also has beautiful instrumental tracks, featuring quick picking and melodies that wind like a river. Fans of Nick Drake will find a lot to love here, like on the title track where Jansch is both introspective and wondering about the world at large. Musically speaking, he allows other players and instruments to share in the song, but his identifiable vocals are never too covered up by the full band. The guitar and his voice are the stars of this show; though the groovy sax solo on “How it All Goes Down” over muzak-sounding keys is worth a listen or two.
Of all the albums, Toy Balloon is the one that best expresses the many facets of Jansch, as it brings together a blend styles. It is a fun record without being abrasive, loud, or reckless; it is comforting and soft without sacrificing a music man’s edge.
Fans of Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and Neil Young would be well-served to check out this collection. The elements of laid-bare folk, bluesy notes and soul-searching messages from their work are just as pronounced, even if his name and work is unfamiliar. It’s impressive to see that an artist who spent his whole life creating music could produce so much cohesive work toward the end of his life, bringing together not only his mastery of technique and style but the influence of the world and time that can only come with age.