Expanded reissue of the breathtaking debut album from Leeds guitar virtuoso Jon Gomm
Release Date: 24th September 2021
It seems just like yesterday… In fact, it was October 2020 when Jon Gomm last blew our collective At The Barrier mind when he treated us to an extended display of his acoustic guitar pyrotechnics on his recent album, The Faintest Idea. I raved about The Faintest Idea, using phrases like “If you’re a guitarist, either accomplished or aspirational, you HAVE to hear this guy to understand just what an acoustic guitar can do,” and “[His music is] impossible to classify. Neither jazz nor ambient, the overall sound captures strains of each of those genres and much more, to construct a style that is fascinating, alluring and mystifying.”
And now, happily, Jon Gomm is back in the frame, this time with an expanded reissue of his 2013 debut album, The Secret Nobody Keeps, and I’m delighted to be able to report that I stand by every word of the assessment I made back in October. The release of this new version of the album is timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Jon’s life-changing, ground-breaking debut single, Passionflower, and, to celebrate that momentous occasion, this new version includes a 2020 re-recording of Passionflower, cleaned up and placed in an expanded landscape, capturing the sound and ambience that enchanted us so thoroughly on The Faintest Idea.
Recorded in Jon’s bedroom in Leeds, The Secret Nobody Keeps, reset the bar for what virtuoso percussive acoustic guitar playing can look like. The plaudits rained in, with Stephen Fry describing Jon – on mainstream television – as someone “Playing the guitar in a way I’d never seen it played before” and as “An all-round genius.” The plaudits didn’t stop there, either. Jon Anderson told Jon Gomm “I love your work and style so much. You are very special,” David Crosby has described Jon’s work as “Wonderful playing and singing” and there are more, many more, expressions of awe and wonder from many others we would categorise as belonging to that exclusive group, “The Great and the Good.” Particularly revealing is the comment from Total Guitar magazine that describes Jon’s playing as “Perhaps the best percussive guitar album we’ve heard” – it’s a statement that accurately sums up Jon’s style and his ability to knock out complex rhythms on his guitar body whilst simultaneously picking the instrument’s strings and darting all over the fretboard.
Played on s single acoustic guitar, without overdubs, The Secret Nobody Keeps is, indeed, a jaw-dropping work of genius. As Jon says: “I’m proud of this album. It was difficult to make, but I don’t like music to feel easy, to be purely soft, to offer only comfort and nothing more. I hope you enjoy it second time around.” Well – we’ll enjoy it, Jon, there’s no question about that, but I wouldn’t want anybody to read Jon’s statement and get carried away with the idea that The Secret Nobody Keeps is a display of technical dexterity performed just for the sake of it. Yes, the performances are spellbinding, eye-popping and any number of other expressions of totally impressed awe, but it’s also important to explain that, behind the fretboard gymnastics and guitar body paradiddles, there are lots of delightfully melodic and often highly accessible tunes to be enjoyed, as we’ll see…
We jump in at the jazzy deep-end with opening track Telepathy, and, from the outset, it’s clear that something special is happening – this is music that’s unlike anything else that you’re likely to have heard and the delightful Ain’t Nobody is complex, yet satisfyingly accessible – melodic, engaging and even quite spacy. There’s No Need to be Afraid is rich and pastoral with something of a John Martyn feel and features some lovely light-touch sax from Natasha Koczy before we reach Wukan Motorcycle Kid, one of my particular favourites. It’s a meandering, dreamlike piece on which Jon manages to coax a guzheng sound from his guitar to achieve an authentic Chinese feel – whilst also playing a more conventional guitar solo using other strings and other fingers. It’s quite breathtaking!
Natasha returns to add sax and vocals to Deep Cut, another of the album’s real highlights. The song’s lyrics deal with societal divisions within the UK – using words like “We’ll be dancing to rhythm of a dis-United Kingdom.” It’s sobering to realise that those rifts have widened and deepened immeasurably since the original 2013 release of Secrets Nobody Keeps… Natasha’s vocal style recalls Kate Bush and Jon’s guitar and guitar-percussion are simply mesmerizing; the tune is almost hip-hop in places, before morphing into a wonderful guitar/sax section that merges raga with exploratory jazz.
Orville (subtitled The Secret Of Learning To Fly is Forgetting To Hit The Ground) showcases Jon at his very best – percussive guitar rhythms provide the foundation for some sublime soloing, and the whole thing is anchored by an enjoyable melody line. It’s one of the original album’s most popular tracks and, re-listening today, it’s easy to understand why!
Passionflower is, of course, the tune that started the whole process and which sent Jon down the path that he continues to follow with growing recognition. The song was inspired by a passionflower that took root in Jon’s back yard in Leeds, broke through the concrete of the yard’s surface and proceeded to tangle itself around his house. The tune was released as Jon’s debut single and the world took note. It’s a condensed demonstration of the best of Jon’s guitar tricks – including percussion rolls, slides and shuffles, fretboard gymnastics and sweet solos and it sounds just as fresh and stimulating today as it did eight years ago.
After the pyrotechnics of Passionflower, Jon’s take on The Police’s Message In A Bottle is something of a surprise. It’s even quite faithful to the original, albeit embellished with some satisfying layers of jazzy guitar improvisation. Dance of the Last Rhino gives us more of that brilliant percussive guitar, together with a light, breezy melody line before we get to the album’s crown jewel and its original closing track, Everything. And it’s a piece that does have, just about, Everything. In parts, it’s an enjoyable, accessible song, a breathtaking guitar workout and it even includes a medley of pop hits, with snatches of You to Me Are Everything and Running Up That Hill detectable as the song approaches its epic ending.
This new version of Secrets Nobody Keeps is wrapped up by that remake of the debut single. Jon admits to never having been totally happy with the original recording of Passionflower (although, as an uninformed observer, I personally find it difficult to pick any holes in the playing or production) so he called up his friend, Australian producer Andy Sorenson to clean up the rawer original cut. The result is a success and its inclusion on this reissue provides the perfect ending to a thoroughly engaging album.
If you don’t believe that anyone can play the acoustic guitar as well as I’ve tried to describe above, then you’ve got the chance to see for yourself, as Jon will be touring the UK during October, November and December this year to promote his last album The Faintest Idea. Tour dates are listed here – we’ll be at the Manchester gig – supported by the excellent Matt Fryers) so why not pop along and check him out for yourself?
Watch a video of Jon Gomm performing Passionflower – a track from the album and his debut single – here: