If there was a single word you could use to describe John Smith at this point of his career it would have to be ‘consistent.’ He has honed his sound over five previous studio albums and since Great Lakes in 2013, he has been putting out work that’s at the forefront of the UK folk scene and knows exactly what it wants to be. He knows his strengths and he uses them. Consistent is one word – but if you want a few more I’ll go with unique, amazing, unbelievable. He has one of those rare voices that can be described as both honey and gravel – he can pull you in with the deepest of bellows, but can also reach the highest register. And his guitar skills are phenomenal. There are many out there who like to throw all singer-songwriters and acoustic-folk performers into the same pot, dismissing their music as something homogenous. We Bastards know that’s bullshit. And in John Smith, you have an example of an artist who makes that distinction incredibly apparent.
I wouldn’t normally start an album review by waxing so lyrical about the artist, but there are two reasons why I have. One, John Smith deserves it. But the second, more important, reason is that he is a vastly under-appreciated artist who should be listened to and enjoyed by every single one of you. He has a growing audience, a cult following who I see at a lot of his gigs, but I still get blank stares and jokes about a questionable brand of beer that was popular in the 90s when I mention his name. I hope The Fray will be the album to change that. In some ways, though, there is no reason that it should be. As I have already highlighted, John is extremely consistent at this point. The Fray is very much a continuation of the more unswerving sound he has settled on over the last three albums. When he opens with the gorgeous, lilting, and inviting ‘Friends’ you can imagine it feeling equally at home on 2017’s Headlong. As an opener, it is comforting – John Smith is here for you, welcoming you back with his words.
Second song ‘Hold On’, though, does feel a little different to his normal sound. The amazing thing about that is that he really hasn’t added anything here – he is such a talented guitarist that he can create a whole new aesthetic with his fingerpicking. This is one of his best and most exciting songs in years. And with ‘Sanctuary’ and ‘Deserving’, two other album highlights, coming in position three and four on the album, it is fair to say that The Fray begins with a bang. If ‘bang’ is an appropriate word for four gorgeous acoustic guitar songs.
Some might say he made a mistake by putting four of the album’s best songs back-to-back right at the start, but I would argue against that. With this opening, he pulls you in. And then he becomes that consistent, comforting performer that I have spoken about so much already in this review. To keep up the excitement, though, John has also brought in a few more amazing voices to steer him through the album. There are few things as exciting as the moment when you realise that two of your favourite artists are collaborating, so the standout seconds on my first listen were when Lisa Hannigan began singing on ‘Star-Crossed Lovers.’ These two are old friends, but it was lovely to hear them together when both are at such advanced and confident stages of their careers. It’s the best of the album’s collaborations for me, but I’m sure others can make strong arguments for the songs featuring Bill Frisell, Sarah Jarosz, or the Milk Carton Kids. ‘Eye to Eye’ with Sarah Jarosz is particularly gorgeous. She isn’t an artist I have heard of before, but the country tones of her voice are a perfect counterpoint to our main star’s growl on the chorus.
So The Fray, then, is full of stunning, beautiful songs that nobody who has heard John Smith should be surprised by. Consistency is key. I mentioned above that there are some reasons why The Fray might not catapult him to an even larger audience. It isn’t anything that new for him or the listener. But what gives me hope is the fact that this is his most consistently brilliant album to date – his most confident output so far. An album from a man at the top of his game. If you don’t already know him, then this could be the very best place to begin. But make sure you go back to the start after that.
Words by Fran Slater