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John Francis Flynn. Photo credit: Steve Gullick

John Francis Flynn – Look Over the Wall, See the Sky, a review

JFF's blend of earthy vocals, electronic elements, and traditional instruments is as unnerving as it is innovative, making this album an instant classic.

Release Date
10 November 2023
John Francis Flynn - Look Over the Wall, See the Sky
John Francis Flynn's Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is a transformative Irish folk album. Melding traditional songs with experimental sounds, Flynn sets sail for a magical, new Ireland. His blend of earthy vocals, electronic elements, and traditional instruments is as unnerving as it is innovative, making this album an instant classic.

Every year seems to bring us another album that digs into the canon, demanding an audience wider than folkies. Every year the familiar is made new and every year we are reminded why, and how, these songs pulled on our hearts in the first place.

With John Francis Flynn’s second album, Look Over the Wall, See the Sky, we have been gifted one of the finest albums of this, or any other, year. It feels like an album that will find a home far beyond trad fans, one that will demand discovery.

Flynn is a singer, guitarist and flautist, a stalwart member of Dublin’s Skipper’s Alley, and has already released an album that turned a few heads. His 2021 debut, I Would Not Live Always, won countless awards and had The Guardian frothing about how the “human experience burns ferociously” in its grooves. It was, truly, a remarkable thing and certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the Lankum or Lisa O’Neil albums as a shining beacon in the new wave of Irish folk music. Now, Flynn has released an album as honest, inventive and magical as anyone could have wished for. 

Flynn’s assertion is that he is trying to create an imagined Ireland, one that is full of hope but that banishes lazy stereotypes and reductive paddywhackery. His vision is one “over the wall”, where his country is powerful and free. It’s interesting, therefore, that the album starts with ‘The Zoological Gardens’, an old Dubliner’s song. This could simply be a good-natured romp across a silly, witty, cheeky song in praise of Dublin’s zoo (and other things too). Certainly, the lyrics lean in that direction. In Flynn’s hands, though, a disorientating juxtaposition takes hold. Sparse electronics echo across the animal enclosures; a weird, dream-like world where the wind whispering through the bars sits next to the lions, kangaroos and the bar-room innuendo. There’s a spacey whirl, a magical swirl where the Zoological Gardens are transported to this new Ireland that Flynn has in mind.

There are more thrumming electronics and continued spacey vibes on ‘Willie Crotty’, the tale of a Waterford Robin Hood. Flynn’s voice seems to emerge from underground – it’s the sound of peat forming, of moss growing. It is deep and dark and earthy. It is elemental. There is, once again, a delicious juxtaposition in that this incredibly earth-bound voice is layered against radio interference and ZX Spectrum static, the electronic “poing” of a spring-like percussion sits next to deep vocal darkness. The effect is mesmerising, almost trance-like and, at times, remarkably intense. If Flynn is reimaging Ireland then it is a place where opposites collide and coalesce in the pursuit of harmony.  

‘Mole In The Ground’ is a traditional American folk song from the 1920s, featured on Harry Smith’s Anthology. Flynn starts his version with guitar, violin and drums – nicely urgent with hints of Robert Wyatt. The slightly discordant guitar and wandering violin lines slowly give way to more experimental clangs and squiggles as strange lyrics, filled with an anti-establishment metaphor, beat themselves against a post-punk hypnotic churn. Finally, a sad violin plays the song out, a nod to the fact that there might be all sorts going on in this album but it’s still a folk record at its heart. 

It’s too easy, and utterly pointless, to point to others that have gone before Flynn, others that have refurbished the Irish tradition, but Shane MacGowan was the one that rescued ‘Kitty’ from obscurity when he put in on Red Roses For Me. Flynn says that he heard his mum sing this trad love song but, surely, she never sang it like this. Drones start the song before his voice comes in, slow and slurred. A single, sad drumbeat helps build a drone-drenched suffocation until plucked strings unleash squalls of guitar, shrieking into the shadows, taking the banshee wail of electronics and distortions with it. 

‘Within a Mile Of Dublin’ is a traditional Irish reel but has the spooky intensity of a M.R James story. The tortuous hum of a violin and a whistle leads, dizzily, into a reel; fiddle and bodhran join as layer upon layer of wild, unhinged, whirling drones disorientate until you’re not entirely sure where you are. There’s discordance lurking on the edges, howls, screeches and an insane beat (can that really be the folk equivalent of old-school Gabber hardcore?) that leads to a haunting possession. It’s the pulsing, howling, squirming black heart of the album and all the more fabulous for it. 

This remarkable collection ends with two Ewan MacColl songs, as if to further emphasise the importance of stories in Flynn’s new world. ‘The Lag Song’ was originally written for a BBC documentary on Strangeways prison back in 1965 and seethes with a barely suppressed fury. It is primitive in the same way that John Fahey is “primitive”: unpretentious, raw and open. There’s not a single ounce of prettiness, not a shred of forgiveness, as cello and guitar saw away. Flynn sounds tired and desperate. Yet, just when you think that his new Ireland is surrounded by darkness, Flynn takes a song that is as familiar as anything and totally remakes it. ‘Dirty Old Town’ has been wholly deconstructed and slowed to walking pace. Brass swells beneath it as his voice stays calm, contemplative and true. It’s quiet and thoughtful as a reverb-ridden guitar plucks out the tune. In its simplicity there is a fragile, haunting beauty. 

Across eight tracks and one incredible album, John Francis Flynn has encouraged us to listen to these songs again, to put them into his new world, to have them pull out our hearts once more. Look Over the Wall, See the Sky is a classic. 

Look Over the Wall, See the Sky by John Francis Flynn came out on November 10th on River Lea. It can be ordered via Bandcamp.