Wistful reveries and other stories from Liverpool singer-songwriter John Jenkins.
Release Date: Out now
Label: Self release
Formats: CD, Download
Liverpool singer-songwriter John Jenkins is a man with a growing reputation. His 2021 album, If You Can’t Forgive, You Can’t Love was deservedly acclaimed by in-the-know factions of the musical media and Tuebrook, his summer 2023 follow-up to that well-regarded effort, takes things a few steps further.
For readers unfamiliar with Liverpudlian geography, Tuebrook is a district of Liverpool, due east of Everton and not much further than a hefty stones’ throw from the neighbouring stadiums of Anfield and Goodison Park. It also happens to be the suburb in which John Jenkins was born and raised. It won’t surprise you to learn, therefore, that Tuebrook – the album – contains a good sprinkling of songs that recall life in the district during John’s 1960s and 1970s childhood, with friends, relations, neighbours and the effect of time upon the area itself all featuring in some of the warmest and most intimate, wistful, confessional reveries that you’re likely to hear this side of Christmas.
But – as John is keen to point out – this album is NOT Tuebrook – The Musical; around half of the album’s songs were written with Tuebrook in mind, with the remaining material, including a song that namechecks the US state of Idaho – probably about as far from Tuebrook both geographically and culturally as it’s possible to get – reflect on fictitious characters in fictitious situations, the products of John’s clearly fertile imagination. John Jenkins takes up the story: “I had a lot of new songs I had been working on in Crosstown Studios [Liverpool] and I had been asked so many times to release a stripped-back album without the usual pyrotechnics of some of the earlier album songs. Even though quite a few songs on the surface are autobiographical, I am sure a lot of people can relate to some of the stories and emotions the songs speak about.”
And, on those points – firstly: the ‘stripped-back’ approach has worked a treat. John’s vocals and piano are supplemented by the lightest of light touches from Jon Lawton’s bass, guitars, lap steel, percussion and keyboards, Chris Howard’s keyboards and some lovely backing vocals from John’s touring partner Pippa Murdie. The result is a mellow sound that adds a richness and warmth to John’s contemplative lyrics. Secondly, John has certainly succeeded in his quest to expose stories and emotions that resonate with the listener; whether he’s talking about the relentless deterioration of his hometown, considering whether his life has been lived to its fullest extent or wondering what happened to a childhood friend, he’s dealing with subjects that are sure to exercise the imagination of many of his contemporaries.
John Jenkins is, perhaps, best known as a purveyor of that broad church – Americana – and he accepts that the songs on Tuebrook take their inspiration from the Americana and Liverpudlian songbooks. He cites his influences as John Prine to The Beatles and Mary Chapin Carpenter to Townes Van Zandt; however, if pushed, I’d have to suggest that, with a few exceptions, there’s a closer affinity to songs like Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane and Eleanor Rigby here than to anything from across the Atlantic. And that’s no bad thing – as we all know, there are few people anywhere capable of doing warm nostalgia, tinged with gentle humour, better than a Scouser.
It’s the album’s lead single, the intimate Shadows, that gets Tuebrook underway. A lament to how time has ravaged the Tuebrook area, it’s one of those songs that will strike resonant chords with anyone who has seen their own hometown suffer the same fate. And the song sets the musical pattern for the rest of the album, with piano, bass, percussion and harmony vocals all finding the blend which illuminates John’s lyrics to optimum effect.
John speculates how a friend that he last saw when they both left primary school has spent his life in the wonderful Christopher Roberts, the second of the album’s two singles. Jon Lawton’s lap steel embellishments add extra nostalgic depth as John J recalls the childhood antics – including bursting tar bubbles and painting their faces – in which he and Christopher would indulge, before life forced them apart. And there’s more of Jon’s wonderful lap steel in the wistful Maybe I Just Came Along For the Ride before we take that trip over to north-western US for the simple and highly-effective Idaho. John has long held a fascination for American place names – he finds them far more evocative than British names ‘like Clacton or Grimsby’ – and Idaho (the song) certainly obliges on the evocation front. John has adopted the melody from the traditional song, Wayfaring Stranger, for the song and Pippa’s harmony vocals and Jon’s Peter Green-like guitar licks add that special bit of something.
Time is a commodity that becomes ever more precious as we age, and John uses Passing Time to ponder whether he’s made best use of that priceless resource during his life. With more of Pippa’s excellent harmonies and to a sparse backing of fingerpicked guitar, John conducts his reverie with sprinklings of Scouse humour. The passage of time also features in the subject matter of the sad 43 And Counting. John’s lyrics recall a conversation with a female workmate who had been abandoned by her husband who had taken up with a younger woman. John pulls no punches as he retells the lady’s story, her realization that her biological clock was ticking and her regret that she was unlikely ever to have the children that she so fervently wished for. The tune is reminiscent of Nights in White Satin and the brushed drums that accompany the song seem to echo the ticking of the irreversible biological clock.
John’s memories of life in the care of his paternal grandmother provide the material for the charming A Child’s Sense of Wonder. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric song, particularly when Pippa whispers “Don’t forget to say your prayers.” John strips things right back to guitar and voice for the contemplative She Feels Nothing before turning to what is perhaps the album’s saddest and most challenging song. William tells the true story of John’s earliest friend, William Geary, with whom John shared many of his formative life experiences. William’s adult life wasn’t particularly happy – he succumbed to alcoholism and died prematurely from pneumonia – but John does manage to focus on the good times as well as the bad, as he tells William’s story. The guitars blend seamlessly together and the acoustic guitar solo is exquisite. The track ends with some recorded snippets of William and John singing and laughing together back in 1978 – it’s intriguing and, actually, quite disturbing and I’m not sure that it would withstand repeated listens. A shame, because William is otherwise perhaps the strongest song on the album.
The characters in the lyrics to Lost In The Storm are, I believe, fictional, but their activities, as described in John’s lyrics, are a microcosm of real life in 60s suburban Liverpool. There’s even a priest in the narrative, a character that John suspects was subconsciously influenced by Eleanor Rigby and the tune is rich and atmospheric.
There’s time for one final piece of reverie. I imagine that most 1960s neighbourhoods had a shop similar to Mr Ford’s Hardware Store, the subject of Tuebrook’s closing track. In his sleevenotes, John recalls the shop as a tiny place, jam packed, floor to ceiling, with every conceivable household good. There was certainly such a shop in the area of Bolton where I was brought up and John’s description of Mr Ford’s emporium brought back vivid memories of the smell of paraffin that pervaded that store. The track itself is a medley of children’s songs performed by John’s special guests, the Infants’ choir from Our Lady Star Of The Sea School, Seaforth. It’s quite unexpected after an album of such eloquent and comforting recollections, buts – it fits!
Watch the official video to Christopher Roberts, the album’s second single, here: