Wilko Johnson – Blow Your Mind (2018)

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Blow Your Mind, due on June 15, 2018 via Chess/UMC, arrives as Wilko Johnson seems to have become something of a national treasure – possibly to his own surprise. Johnson’s profile changed after he overcame a terminal diagnosis, but the good thing is he is back and more people are listening to his music.

The album begins with “Beauty,” and it is Wilko Johnson, loud and clear. This song is bound to connect with fans of earlier Wilko compositions like “Slipping and Sliding,” “Going Home” (with Roger Daltrey) and, most of all, “Sneaking Suspicion.” They could almost be the same chords with different vocal lines (but they are not exactly). In fact, if you play “Sneaking Suspicion” and then “Beauty,” the two songs are almost interchangeable – but maybe that is the point. This track is familiar as old slippers yet solid and rocky, the lyrics are crystal clear and the chopping guitar sings out the chords. “Beauty” is a great rock number with that feel-good factor we have come to expect from Wilko Johnson.

The title track is another grinder of a song which emulates the folky rock which Wilko works and reworks so well. “Blow Your Mind” is fun, capricious and devastatingly well wrought, with the drums and bass forming a rock-solid background. The change around the 50-second mark is lovely, with the bass of Norman Watt Roy and the drums of Dylan Howe discussing the melody with each other, aided and abetted by the perfectly interposed string lines from Wilko’s guitar.

“Marijuana” is slower, sleazier and more bluesy, which fits the poignant lyrics perfectly. Key lines include: “Feels so good, down here in my misery; man, I just sit here thinking this, thinking that, thinking just one last thing and that’s the end of me. … But somewhere out there in the night, in the dark there’s a clock ticking out my time.” The words smack full in the face, as listeners are reminded that Wilko Johnson was so very nearly not with us to record this first album of original material in 30 years. Wilko has a slightly whining tone to his voice at times and here, he knows it and uses it perfectly to emphasize the sadness of the lyrics: “I’ll just say goodbye, goodbye and step into this dark outside my door.” Goodness, how the heart strings are pulled!

“Tell Me One More Thing” is set into motion by wonderful, rhythmic bass from Norman Watt Roy. That, coupled with Wilko’s trademark choppity-chop guitar and the drumming from Dylan Howe, set up a strong, deft and pulsatingly perfect rhythm section, around which the lyrics work themselves. Talk about deep lyrics! “Sing praises to the king, hear the angels sing. I do believe you; yes, indeed, but tell me one more thing.” Has our Wilko gone religious or is this just a questioning mind? A great track. “That’s The Way I Love You” is another classic Wilko-style rock number, with familiar beats over frenetic, chopped guitar rhythms – and those chops are important because they emphasize the cadences which Wilko has such an ear for. The bass line walks up and down, going deep in the basement whilst also emphatically maintaining the rhythms here. Sometimes, you can follow the bass back up for over an octave: It just makes the track.

“Low Down” is introduced by bass, and then the guitar soars over the top with a neat riff and singing strings. Then emotive, woe-begotten spoken lyrics come in over the top. The words are spoken in such Ian Dury-esque fashion and intonation – or, more likely, Derek Hussey fashion – that I almost fell off my chair. It was like a voice from the grave. “Truths murmur in your mind and fade away like drowned men’s faces when deep waters stir. … Words are woven like a gothic fantasy. Somewhere time flows on, still carrying us all down to our deaths, rapid or slow as an old river. Nothing stops it. Though the waters here are bright and still, they bring no changes to this never-changing room.” It’s philosophical, indeed, and all of this unfolds over slow, bluesy riffs and wonderful, exploratory guitar. A mournful mouth organ seals the deal, with the blues genie working its way into the atmosphere here. “Low Down” is one to listen to again and again.

“Take It Easy” sets off with a drum intro and rock beat with the guitars and keyboard. The song takes us through the emotions of finding your heart’s desire and losing it: “Though well I know my time ain’t long, close your eyes, I’m almost gone.” There is an understanding here that love will go to another man when he is gone. “When Buddha walked beneath the trees, his shadow fell on times like these. Take it easy, babe. … One day, you’ll be free, babe. Uou can turn around and leave it all behind. Forty days, forty nights, you walk the floor and wonder why. … I know you hate to be alone. Before they drag you down, loneliness can make you love a heart of stone.” Tag these soul-wrenching lyrics over the repetitive, mesmeric music from the group, and a nifty little six-note motif from the keyboard which is transcendent through the piece, and you have a song of such bitter sweetness it nearly breaks your heart.

“I Love the Way You Do” is more like the old Wilko Johnson – all “baby” and scratching backs over some wonderful riffs which could sit well on a Dr. Feelgood album. The great thing is the references constantly to both Wilko’s past and his new and future music. It’s like getting all the goodness and none of the dross. You know how it is going to go, but it is not a copy: excellent. “It Don’t have to Give You the Blues” cautions against letting loneliness make you crazy; it doesn’t have to give you the blues. That’s about it, really. Well, and demonic chopping guitar, steady drums and a cheerful frolic through, round and over the blues riffs! “Lament” is a rock-solid number, encompassing wondrous guitar over steadfast support, and the intro is just the start. Wilko shows how good he is as a guitarist playing tunes, as well as placing those perfectly chopped chords which are so much a trademark of his. “Lament” is a beautiful, gentle and lilting track.

“Say Goodbye” is different and very engaging, with juxtaposed rhythms between bass, guitar and drums lending an off-kilter feel which grabs the ears in all the right ways. That said, the chords are familiar and majorly keyed. Very clever. “River rolling, times going by, now’s the time to say goodbye.” Again, these are the lyrics of a man who has been there, faced the black door and basically made it work for him. “Slamming” finishes Blow Your Mind, and the opening could have lifted itself out of several Wilko Johnson-penned tracks and transported itself. The blistering pace set from the start continues; with the addition of a rolling blues piano line, the full band set up is heard – and, boy, is it tight! A few references to other rock and roll numbers are in there, unbidden, but they come to mind, especially with the Jelly Roll motions on the keyboards. “Slamming” is a wonderful, fun, frantic, ass-kicking way to close out the album.

What is wonderful about Blow Your Mind, firstly, is that the tracks are original. Secondly, there is enough reference to old material to make it familiar, yet also enough new takes on riffs, motifs and chordal progressions to make it interesting and yes, new. Thirdly, this is Wilko Johnson, who has become such an icon in the U.K. I have made much of the lyrics in this review, which is unusual, but we can almost see a journey (along with a few standard tales, of course). Wilko is a man who has faced the end, totally accepted it, surprised himself and others by coming back full force.

Now, undimmed and undaunted, Wilko Johnson offers this new material with the wonderful Norman Watt Roy (one of the Blockheads), whose superb bass guitar playing cannot go without comment; and drummer Dylan Howe (also an ex-Blockhead; they must have a deal going on). Dylan and Norman are no strangers to musical success and bring with them the kudos of having played with any number of strong collaborators from Ian Dury, Nick Lowe, Madness, the Clash and Nick Cave to Ray Davies, Paul McCartney and David Gilmour. One of the Blockheads once told me he named his son after Dylan, so he must be good!

Much has been made of Wilko Johnson’s close brush with death and his incredible comeback, but not enough about the fact that his music, the sounds and the rapaciousness of his delivery have been toned down not one bit. In fact, perhaps it’s all just slightly more creatively timed. His voice is not as strong as it once was, but it is capable of delivering emotion – and his lyrics are pronounced so you can hear them, which is good in itself.

Blow Your Mind doesn’t sound anything like what you might expect from someone who did a farewell tour not so long ago. This is music from a musician loving life, enjoying the melodies and playing with incredible artists. This, in fact, is Wilko Johnson near his best. In “Say Goodbye,” Wilko sings: “You’re a child of the family and a rolling stone; you can find your own way home.” I think he found his way.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Sammy Stein
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