Jackie Leven

Night Lilies

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On his fourth studio album, singer/songwriter Jackie Leven pushed his ambition lever up a few more notches. While it's normal for Leven's album to be a collage of styles -- including Celtic soul, folk, country, rock & roll, and Burt Bacharach & Hal David-styled pop -- he seldom juxtaposed many of them into single tunes. Here, this happens with stunning regularity. Combined with a lush production style, it can be a bit much for the uninitiated listener. But excess is Leven's trademark in the same way it is Scott Walker's and Van Morrison's. What makes most people uncomfortable with Leven is his unflinching romantic and emotional honesty. Nothing is hidden in his narratives, nothing is hinted at in his love songs; instead, everything is aired onto the open hill and lane. The disc opens with the title track -- a long explanation of which is given on the back liners -- a Scottish Celt ballad with a killer telecaster riff courtesy of Doll by Doll's Jo Shaw. It's a dark song of violence, emptiness, and the presence of an invading, harsh spirit in the live of the protagonist and other men. The song opens with the line "Come gather round, assholes, and chop me a line/I'll tell you the tale of a good friend of mine...." What unfolds is a tale of self-laceration and loathing that makes the hardiest listeners wince. What follows is "Burning the Box of Beautiful Things," another tale of grief with a doo wop chorus, and a gorgeous pop melody with augmented sevenths and uillean pipes criss-crossing through the mix and a steely lead guitar that just strikes out in the middle, playing one line into the sonic abyss. And like his preceding album, Fairy Tales for Hard Men, Leven works through the process of his darkness with so much emotional clarity and soul he can say anything and not be afraid of what anyone will think -- it helps that he can write pop hooks and bridges and is a solid producer of his own material. The hinge of the album, its centerpiece, is the single "Universal Blue," which is one of the greatest rock love songs written to date. If Bruce Springsteen has heard this song, he most likely wishes he had written it. It's an easy rocker that apparently is a true story of how Leven and Deborah Greenwood, his life partner, walked away from each other in a rainy Scottish forest, seemingly never to see each other again. As his crooning and her backing vocal ring through with the lyrics, chills float up and down the spine: "I thought I might never see you again/And the bruise was black and blue/The bruise of the soul that comes/When you know lost love is true/Everybody's got this color in their life/It's called universal blue....One day I will stand/Alone in the woods/And my hand will move to the scar/I will press and the trickle of pain/Will tell me where you are/And of all the words I have heard/I know you're calling is true/Everybody's got this color in their life/It's called universal blue." When he hits the refrain and the guitars and keyboards clamber along the downbeat, the heart bursts from its hiding place and answers with the singer: "Universal blue/What can I do/So in love with you/I've got universal blue." In the bridge, the uillean pipes scream out of the mix from the top and haunt the protagonist for the rest of the narrative. This is Leven's gift, using his romantic honesty and emotional excesses as a way of bringing -- through time-honored musical traditions -- the listener's own experiences to the foreground of memory (which he calls the "revenge of memory") and opens a space in them to receive his songs. Night Lilies is nearly perfect in its airy, breezy arrangements, gorgeous production, and stunning songwriting. As a singer, Leven is in a class by himself, and it seems that his falsetto -- once his trademark and lost when his voice box was nearly crushed in an assault -- is beginning to return. With records of this quality and integrity, full of pop values and sophisticated musicianship, it's a crime that Leven cannot even tour the United States because he is so obscure. What a curse for a man who offers such treasures.

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