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There’s a lyric on the manic, discoish lead single of Past Pupil Stay Sane that goes: “Man in the pub said play Neil Young / Or a Leonard Cohen song / Play us something we can all sing along / we’re tired of listening to your shitty oul sounds”. The fierce, almost shouted delivery of those lines lends the track a real punk quality, but behind that there’s a disarming self-awareness.
Dundalk singer-songwriter Jinx Lennon is that loud prick with an acoustic guitar playing away at his shitty oul songs in the corner of the pub when all you want to hear is ‘Heart of Gold’. His tunes consist primarily of two or three rough chords and lyrics delivered though a pure local drawl as unmelodic as it is distinctive. He’s a true musical oddball, and it’s not hard to imagine a small pub crowd giving a collective groan when he starts bashing away at his guitar.
And of course, Lennon couldn’t give a fuck. He knows you may not be into the music he’s making. He doesn’t care. He’s made it this far and he’s not stopping now.
Jinx Lennon has been doing his thing around the country’s pubs and small festivals for years now, but 2016 may well represent him reaching his creative highpoint as an artist. Back in October Lennon – after several years without any getting any new material down on tape – released two new albums simultaneously: Past Pupil Stay Sane and Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift the Grief Magnets.
That’s right. Two. Two separate records. Released in digital form on Bandcamp and the streaming services alongside two physical CDs, dropped on the same day. The two albums contain almost 40 tracks between them. The title track of one – ‘Past Pupil Stay Sane’ – appears on the other album.
It is impressive – with an apparently ever-shrinking amount of money to be made as an independent musician in Ireland in 2016 – to see a form of artistic expression so totally untainted with even the vaguest hint of commercial compromise.
But that’s Jinx Lennon.
At heart, his music is a raw unpolished yell against the small-scale mundanity of day-to-day working class life in a largish Irish town. Far from attempting to elevate the intimacy of his subject matter to a kind of poetic universality, Lennon positively wallows in the unimpressive nature of the reality he depicts in his songs.
His singing voice is harsh and heavily accented with possibly the least musical and most cutting regional dialect on the island, and he backs this up with sometimes no more than the barest elements of an instrumental arrangement. In other cases he forgoes this entirely – going full spoken word with a hastily delivered babble of narrative.
Anybody who has caught Lennon live will be familiar with the character behind this music. He wears thick black sunglasses with the words “Free State” and “Nova” written on each lens in white paint. He yells at his audience like a supporter at a football match, both during and between songs. He bashes away at his acoustic guitar like a punk with an electric. More recently, he’s supplemented the guitar with a bank of electronics, or forgone the instrument entirely in favour of nothing more than a distorted squeal of synthesized noise. His songs frequently feel like nothing more than bad jokes, but they are delivered with unrelenting, straight-face intensity.
Between all of this, there’s a lot to be squeezed into a record, and this may explain the breadth of Lennon’s recent dual releases. Across both albums Lennon puts on tape perhaps the purest self-expression as an artist he’s yet achieved – as well as pushing himself into several new and often very weird directions. Both works are big, eclectic, strange things, dispatches from a mind that may not be quite right, but tucked within that is a rendering of a reality that should strike most listeners as familiar. Lennon has a way of making it sound like the only way he could possibly express the boring, shitty, embarrassing, depressing nature of his reality is through the exact means of expression he’s chosen. The longer you devote to listening, the more sense it makes.
Far from being some kind of over-indulgent double-album – both records are distinct, separate and quite different sounding efforts. Magic Bullets… is probably the more experimental of the two, verging heavily on the electronic side of Lennon’s musical persona. On tracks like ‘Xanax’ and ‘Hypnotise the Sprog’, he builds up a tirade of blunt repetition around a cheap tinny drumline and brief snatchers of samples that sound once and then never come back in again.
The album’s subject matter frequently digress into totally silliness – subjects include the brutal reality of loan sharks preying on working class families (‘Piranhas of Xmas’), violence on the streets of Dundalk (‘Hard Man Soup’), fast food addiction (‘The Human Chip’) and the feeling of going over to visit your aunt and she offers you huge big slice of cake that is just too much for you to eat (‘No Sponge’). It’s an eclectic mess, both lyrically and musically, but somehow Lennon pulls it together, and forms these demented and various threads into a distinct musical character.
Even when it seems like he’s taking the piss – singing deliberately dumb songs for the shits and giggles of it all – there’s such an unbound honesty to Lennon’s music that it goes way beyond some kind of bizarre, one-note novelty. “We’re all silly fuckers” sings Lennon on ‘Silly Fkers’, affecting a vocal delivery of utter seriousness. But he plays it so straight that it’s hard to tell where exactly the joke ends and the earnestness begins. He sings like he’s dropping the most profound truth on his listeners – and at a certain point it’s hard not to get carried away, to nod your head and think, ‘You know what, this lad has a point. We are all silly fuckers.’
Past Pupil… meanwhile, is a longer and more complex record. Its eclectic range is even greater than Magic Bullets…, and the depth Lennon wrings from this unbothered blend of insight and deliberate silliness is a true piece of artistic mischief. The album features guitar ballads, spoken word, and a heavy injection of collaborative efforts that really manage to amplify Lennon’s sound. Most notable here is the addition of singer-songwriter Sophie Coyle on backing vocals. Her warm, smooth vocal delivery is a total contrast to Lennon’s, adding tons of new depth to the tracks on which she appears, softening the sound while manging to express – albeit in a very different way – the tough, unflinching emotional nature of the lyrics.
The whole record sounds much more conventionally musical than its brother release, but this only serves to draw more attention to the plain ridiculousness of Lennon’s subject matter, rather than masking it. ‘Bonus Ball’ relies on a fiery rock hook mated with a demented twisting of a solid pop-sensibility; ‘Shop Thy Neighbour’ is a cute and catchy anthem to dole snitches; while ‘Heartattack in Spain’ borrows fellow Dundalk musicians the Beached Whales to transform the tale of a middle-aged tourist’s ignoble final moments into a slick, glorious funk number.
Simmering just beneath the surface of all this joking around is a strong political dimension. ‘Exhaust Pipe + Steering Wheel’ opens to a chipper melody and the lines “I hope that nobody recognises me / as I go out to the garage to get something to eat / I hope I don’t bump into anyone I know / Because I’m sleeping rough in this car a week or so.” ‘Not Bad People’, meanwhile, unflinchingly satirises a middle-class family who give to charity but is unwilling to allow “those people” move in beside them.
It’s never explicitly stated who “those people” are, but it is this reviewer’s understating that this is one of the only songs from any Irish musician in recent years to address discrimination against Travellers. It’s a powerful tirade against hypocrisy and racism that’s all the more disarming because it comes jammed in among more light-hearted fare.
Lennon’s working class identity is the driving force behind a lot of his writing, but it isn’t all the rage as evidenced above – ‘I Know My Town’ is an honest, unashamedly sentimental ode to a place and the people in it that celebrates the grim reality of “sewer pipes”, “chip shops” and “bullshit” with a real sense of hope.
It’s worth noting that there is a possible bias to everything that has been written above, as this reviewer, like Lennon, comes from the town of Dundalk. When Lennon sings about space cadets floating about off their heads on Anne Street, or gunshots heard down the Avenue Road, I know exactly what he’s talking about. There are characters mentioned on a couple of the tracks that I’m pretty sure I know personally. But I think that there’s at least some small element of the town he’s singing about to be found right across the country.
Take ‘Ten O’clock T Break Bollix’, from Magic Bullets… which has a chorus that goes: “Ten o’clock tea break bollix / sitting in the work canteen / making smart remarks about people passing by / because I haven’t got self-esteem.” There’s a painful familiarity there, if anything amplified by the weirdness that somebody chose to write a song about something so nonsensically small scale. Lennon’s music is an unadorned celebration of the petty little moments of life that many of us would rather just get though rather than spend time even thinking about.
Jinx Lennon takes this petty little small town reality and celebrates it. The rough edges, the chaotic delivery, the thick accent are all part of that. In the same way that most musicians recording today just know that it’s a bad idea to release two different albums in one go, those same musicians just know that this kind of reality is not a suitable subject matter for proper music. In this way, there aren’t many artists so totally sure of themselves that they’re willing to bull heedlessly on ahead with disregard for how things should be done.
But Jinx Lennon is one of those. Long may he continue.