The first time I heard of Jackie Leven would have been in the late 90s/early 00s. Leven’s music was either played on late night radio or was mentioned on a Late Review type programme. At uni, in my third year, one of my housemates was a fan and we used to play him inebriated from the pub. They were slightly relaxing, yet terse, post-pub drinking sessions. Then, like with a lot of things, I forgot about Leven and moved on to something else, but the memory of his sonorous voice lingered.
The next time I came across Leven was in the 2010s. I was going through a massive Pere Ubu phase and snapping up anything and everything released to this seminal band. Ubu frontman David Thomas was friends with Leven, and they made some must together. ‘Defending Ancient Springs’ and ‘Creatures Of Light And Darkness’ were purchased and poured over with the kind of detail that is admirable and cringeworthy. Then, like with a lot of things, moved on to something else, but the memory of his sonorous voice lingered.
Last year, during the first lockdown, I was going through my hard drive for something new/different to listen to while working from home. I found ‘Defending Ancient Springs’ and ‘Creatures Of Light And Darkness’. It was as if I hadn’t heard them before. I was blown away by the richness of Leven’s voice along with the beauty of his songwriting. On the surface these were simple stories of love, loss, and redemption, but there were as complex as the best short stories. They told a complete tale, whilst not giving a clear ending.
While listening to ‘Straight Outta Caledonia… The Songs of Jackie Leven’ those original themes I experienced, as well as notions of patriotism, are repeated again and again. ‘Some Ancient Misty Morning’, ‘Heartsick Land’, ‘Irresistible Romance’ and ‘Straight Outta Caledonia’ are love letters to Scotland. The songs written by someone who loved where they lived and everything that means, but at no point are they filled with the fire and brimstone associated with nationalism. Instead, they have a romantic quality to them as Leven talks about feelings connected to being in nature. It’s refreshing not to mention that the songs are glorious.
The standout track is ‘Irresistible Romance’. What makes it so enjoyable is the lyrics. ‘Irresistible Romance’ contains the lyric “And I was in that number when I left my home headed south. Living on hope and word of mouth”. On the surface it works well as a rhyme, but when you start to think about it, in one go Leven describes succinctly what it feels like to leave home and go somewhere now. You hope things will work out and are going on any leads for work you get. Another gem from ‘Irresistible Romance’ is “Show me the counting house / Where young men stare at screens”. This was a snapshot of the future in 2003. What makes the lyrics even better is how they aren’t even the chorus! It feels almost throwaway. And this is the sheer joy of Leven. You never know when he’ll deliver that line that will plague your mind for weeks to come.
‘Straight Outta Caledonia…The Songs of Jackie Leven’ is the first Best Of, Greatest Hits, or compilation of Leven’s work. The songs are culled from his solo albums and span his career. Yes, some of them might not has aged as well as you would have hoped. ‘Snow In Central Park’ screams of the time it was made. Massive synthetic drums and saxophones dominate, but underneath this is a song as powerful, and heartfelt, as when it was first written.
If this is your first exposure to Leven, then everything you need to know is right here. If you like it, then use it as a launching pad to a rich back catalogue. Track down every album used on the compilation and you’ll still have plenty more to fall in love with. If you are an old Leven head, then this should remind you what you feel in love with in the first place. The songs tap into a rich vein of songwriting seldom seen. Everything Jackie Leven sings about has a parallel in your life. You know what he’s going through either through during these shared experiences. This was his gift, and this is why ‘Straight Outta Caledonia…The Songs of Jackie Leven’ is an essential addition to your collection, playlists, and psyche.
Words: Nick Roseblade
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