Afterglow by Jon Boden

Release date: October 6, 2017
Label: Hudson Records

Following the heart-breaking end of Bellowhead in 2016, their restless frontman Jon Boden picked up his many instruments and immediately set about recording music of a different flavour. Still deeply-rooted in folk, his solo work is just as experimental, layered, and intriguing a listen as any of Bellowhead’s formidable output, but where Bellowhead’s emphasis was on reimagining traditional folk songs, Boden’s solo work is entirely original. Afterglow is his third solo album, recorded with the help of session musicians, and wonderfully encapsulates Boden’s talent as a storyteller and composer within its pensive music.

The album is quite a departure from the joyous riot that was Bellowhead. The melodies are mostly driven by Boden and Richard Warren on guitar, underpinned and enriched by gorgeous string arrangements from Kiki Chen, Helen Bell, and Lucy Revis on violin, viola, and cello respectively. It was with this string trio that Boden launched the album at a small party on Tuesday 3rd October at Cecil Sharp House, in Camden. Home to the English Folk Dance and Song Society, as well as the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, more auspicious settings in which to debut a folk album could not be found outside the woods and fields of Abbots Bromley. The musicians did a fantastic job with stripped-down string-only arrangements of the songs, which greatly elevated the emotional core of the album.  Coupled with the warmth of the night, a good fire, mulled cider, and parkin to eat, it all combined draw the audience deeper into the story of Afterglow.

Afterglow is a concept album, telling the post-apocalyptic story of a man who returns, once a year, to an abandoned, desolate city which hosts a street carnival, his intent being to reconnect with a woman he met and loved there long ago. Played by firelight on just strings, crowned with Boden’s emotive vocals, the story was given a deep emotional strength as it unfolded over the ten songs. On the album itself, where the music is rounded out and enriched by the other instruments, the atmosphere of an abandoned city is more readily evoked. The drums of ‘Fires of Midnight’, played by ex-Bellowhead alum Sam Sweeney, have a tribal rhythm, harking to the street carnival that the desolate city hosts. This carnival is richly brought to life on ‘All The Stars Are Coming Out Tonight’, the lead single. It is the closest the album cleaves to the music of Bellowhead. As with all the songs on the album, it is tinged with a sense of pensive sadness, but in the main exhibits an exciting, almost primal music that really instils the carnival into the listener’s imagination.

As mentioned, the album is shot through with a hint of sadness. This both draws on and adds to the story: the protagonist spends the first half of the album descending a hill into the town, and finds the woman during ‘All The Stars Are Coming Out Tonight’, only for their reunion to be over far too soon, as reflected on in album closer ‘Aubade’. Pronounced “Oh-bard”, this is actually a French lyric concept specifically devoted to the morning after the night before, where ‘invading day’ drives the lovers apart again. Aside from the middle two songs, and opener ‘Moths In The Gas Light’ – which acts as a précis for the album as a whole – the songs are generally relaxed, written largely in a minor key, and thus suffused with an almost mournful pensiveness that helps bring to the emotions of the story to life.

A far cry from the feel-good folk of Bellowhead, Afterglow is very much a worthwhile listen. The contrast of its pared-down acoustic launch party against the richer textures of the album itself not only greatly elevates the story, which in itself demonstrates Boden’s keen fictional craftsmanship, but also shows off how masterful his compositions are that they work just as well on three string instruments and a concertina as they do in full force. Even when considered on its own, the album is a joyful, but often wistful work, and ultimately one of the best albums of 2017.

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