It’s quite a time to be releasing the third in a trilogy of post-apocalyptic albums. When Jon Boden rolled out Songs from the Floodplain, back in 2009, surely he can’t have expected the significantly more dystopian world into which the finale, Last Mile Home, would be released.
But though it’s timely, Boden was never likely to shoehorn in a reference to coronavirus, despite recording the album in the strange summer of 2020. He’s too classy an artist, his concept is already established – and he doesn’t need to: resonances will or will not echo in the ear of the listener. The disaster of this trilogy is climate-based, but it isn’t a densely narrative tale and you don’t need to have heard either Songs from the Floodplain or 2017’s Afterglow for this record to make sense (although it might enhance your experience). You don’t even really need to know its bare bones – that we’re following an older couple on “a journey from moor to coast in a landscape empty of human life”.
The abstract journey begins (or continues) with Old Straight Track. A field recording of chirping summer birds underlines Boden’s vision of a post-disaster Earth having been reclaimed – not entirely unpleasantly – by nature, before we’re introduced further to a world of thriving flora and fauna. It’s one of a number of songs about walking – partly inspired by the way current society interprets ley lines – and what a future one might read into overgrown roads and railway lines.
The album has a strong summer feel, in contrast to the chill of Afterglow (set in November), and the warm, welcoming register suits Boden. Into the Garden is lovely, melodic, with gentle percussion and burbling concertina, while Honeysuckle Halo is just as summery, thanks in part to its lazy, bluesy guitar and dramatic string parts. Interestingly, its lyrics juxtapose a borderline cloying sweetness (“you taste like cherry wine”) with intriguing unknowability: “I love you though your eyes are hard and distant as a warrior.”
Boden’s apocalypse albums are all, perhaps surprisingly, deeply romantic. So it makes sense to involve a second voice – and to the predictable delight of Mary Hampton fanzine Folk Witness, Boden has coaxed a rare vocal outing from the Brighton-based singer. She provides backing vocals on Cinnamon Water and Dream of the Ocean, both of which speak of a kind of haunted tranquillity.
It’s not all woozy romance, however – although Lay My Body Down lends the concept of giving up, and even dying, a certain beauty. The lyrics of Flash Flood are the album’s most destructive and dramatic – and while their accompaniment isn’t harsh, exactly, there’s a stormy, pizzicato tension to the track, punctuated by thunderous percussion and lightning string stabs.
The sun comes out again soon, however, with the warmth of Walking Song, and the playful Come Out Wherever You Are, which is as close as the album gets to straightforward joy.
Being the last song in a three-album concept puts a lot of pressure on Last Mile Home’s title track. Wisely, Boden keeps it simple: a crisp acoustic guitar accompaniment brings things to a close at the coast. Hampton’s ghostly backing vocal is an excellent counterpoint to our narrator’s wistful “I hear your voice … as if you’re really here”.
It’s a classy ending to a fascinating album. Twelve years is a long period over which to plot the course of a trilogy, and while all three records have been interesting, this feels the most consistent. Many will think of Boden as a fiddle-playing trad specialist – but his songwriting has evolved, his singing is lovelier, his Tom Waits-esque underwater piano (check out the nursery rhyme-style The Path is Winding) is spot on, and his guitar playing in particular is distinctive and beautiful. Meanwhile, his gift for arrangement – made obvious during his time in Bellowhead – is just as evident on a softer, subtler level.
Like I said, it’s a hell of a time to release something apocalyptic, but Last Mile Home somehow serves up hope, peace and love. Which is quite an achievement.
Last Mile Home is out on Hudson Records on March 5
Main pic: Tim James