When Neil Burrell sent me his new album, he didn’t include any song titles.  It took several texts and a couple of draft lists before ‘final’ titles were forthcoming.

i was gonna leave it up to the listener
to decide on the titles
but that would get a bit confusing i guess’

Thank God, a maverick.

Because I’m bored.  Because everything is so fucking straight.  Everything is so rational.  Everything is so logical.  Everything is so repressed, everything is so hemmed in.  It’s quiet.  Platitudes are murmured.  Conventions are observed.  Standards are upheld.  Eke, eke, eke, from month to month, pay check to pay check, office to pub, cigarette hangover, under the same sky every day.

”Jon, he had it sussed / He was living the life of a tramp / In his bed was the cold and the damp / but the sun was his friend….”

Burrell’s folk hero ‘Mad Jon’, meanwhile, lives out there in the English greenwood (does it still exist?), whilst  caged, frightened curtain twitchers peek, speculate and mythologise.

“Mothers sang to their children / beware of Mad Jon…”

Mad Jon was off the beaten track, the Path Thru Life.  He was to be shunned, he was penniless, he was dangerous…

”He was free…”

Compare / contrast with Wilco (and I do like Wilco), a conventional rock band from one of America’s big cities: –

“It’s OK for you to say what you want from me / I believe that’s the only way for me to be / Exactly what you want me to be” (‘Handshake Drugs’ – A Ghost Is Born).

’Mad Jon’ is, to me, Neil Burrell’s most focused and revealing broadside yet.

Elsewhere, the immediately appealing, rural lope of ‘Sun Low’, with it’s brilliant opening line (“Smiling from ear to ear” … it’s hard to explain, just listen to it), reminds this listener of Tim Buckley, before a beautifully lazy slide motif riff melts the perceptions and really does seem to evoke sunset, especially when allied to gorgeous, subtle high harmonies.  ‘Sun Low’ is the scene of some brilliantly executed production ideas.

Where Burrell has fallen down in the past has been in neglecting to really do justice to his own ideas.  Not a criticism that can be levelled at him on the strength of this album.  There’s even room for a reinvention of Lou Reed’s ‘Pale Blue Eyes’, which is so different from the original, that my initial reaction was to think, “hang on, he’s stolen the words to ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ for this song”, rather than, “oh, he’s covering ‘Pale Blue Eyes’”.  There’s something haunting and timeless about the way Burrell sings the line ‘Most of all time, you make me mad…”, holding the note on ‘mad’, so that it floats and makes you close your eyes with it.

The song and album conclude with a creepy segue into the refrain from the timeless ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’, which is an uncomfortable listen, until the plug is suddenly pulled and the song stops dead, mid line.

We’re in Alice’s Wonderland here.  The terrain is unpredictable, slightly spooky, up and down, laden with pitfalls, but you come out glad you experienced it.  Neil Burrell inhabits a hinterland of English imagination, an inheritance that rightfully belongs to all of us, but that the most of us, keyboards thundering as we type our very souls into our emails, our blogs, excitedly pouring unimportant personal consumption preferences into Facebook – look, we’re forgetting ourselves.  We don’t even know where to find ourselves any more.

Neil Burrell’s music has been dismissed in some quarters as the faux-naïve whimsy of a drug-addled Syd Barrett wannabe.  Wrong.  This is a much better record than its predecessor, White Devil’s Day Is Almost Over, which felt like what it was – a collection of early demos.  In comparison, The Shine of Your Skeleton feels like a suite of songs, written, recorded and mixed together.  Doesn’t matter if it is or not, it just doesn’t seem so scattershot. Coherent, controlled and rife with creativity, there is even a tantalising hint at the possibility of Burrell as a songwriter who might develop a fearsome back catalogue of songs and sonic excursions, a la Jason Molina, over tens of albums across different projects.

Not that his ethereal songwriting itself is reminiscent of the far more sturdy, craftsmanly Molina.  Unconventional (thankfully), unpredictable and prone to moments of beauty, hidden away in a forest that is anything but impenetrable, it will take a leap of faith, a left turn off the A roads you know so well, to encounter The Shine of Your Skeleton.  But before you know it, you too will be dancing with Mad Jon.

He means you no harm.