Barrow-in-Furness, the shipbuilding ‘cul-de-sac town’ of Cumbria is, by his own admission, responsible for shaping many of Jon Byrne’s tales. On his impressive first album, It’s Boring Being in Control, these were tales of a working-class existence consisting of neighbours with asbos and receiving beatings on nights out. Byrne’s frank yet comical way of addressing such issues meant his debut gave the feeling of rifling through the diary pages of a somewhat frustrated young man, bemused with life, having a laugh at it all whilst embracing the odd tender moment.
One listen of Built by Angels suggests we are still flicking through that journal; the pages are newer, life has moved on and it appears there is a softer side to the owner. The album’s opening lines follow a country style “a-one-two-three-four” and bending harmonica sounds on track one, ‘Lighthouse’, to beautifully set the storytelling tone as Byrne explains, “I will tell you all my heaven”. The song introduces a theme of love as a light and this continues on tracks three to five, which are romantic, humble outlooks on love, fatherhood, and getting married. Whilst there is a slight danger of this triple hit of extreme passion becoming corny, Byrne’s vocals swoop up and grab you away from this notion. The rasp and commanding intensity in his delivery, particularly on ‘Because Your Love Is’, the strongest of the three tracks, mean despite his addressing the unlikely topic of marriage (let’s face it, how often do we hear songs about the joys of being wed? Not often, it just ain’t that sexy), we can get on board with these warmer sentiments. Furthermore, we are brought back down to earth with a total change of tone in ‘The Bitch and Her Greed’ and ‘Living the Dream’ which lyrically revert us back to the gritty realism and dark humour that has seen past comparisons drawn to the Arctic Monkeys.
The country and bluegrass elements to the music throughout the album, particularly within the harmonica, guitar and Americana vocals, complement the theme of the American Dream, or rather the ridicule of it. ‘Hollywood Calling’ begins with a country-like melancholy introduction and continues in the thread of highlighting the laughable, as well as tragic factors of a shallow industry, as Byrne laments, “I’m still too fat, I need to tuck this and that, I spend thousands but I’ll never get thin. Because Hollywood is my calling”.
Whilst initially his upfront, biting social observations may seem absent, they are still present, they’ve just been muffled slightly by the presence of new love, which appears to perhaps emanate stronger than the anger and frustration we heard more of in the first album. With the bluegrass sound of simple acoustic melodies combined with Byrne’s romance, charismatic storytelling, bold mocking of common controversies and sometimes himself, Built by Angels makes for a captivating and charmingly funny listen. As an aside, if you’re able to catch Jon Byrne live, do so; his eloquent intros to each song are phenomenal narratives in themselves that are well worth hearing.
Words by: Jules Foreman