When Jackie Leven sings, the world is a better place. Well, at least everything sounds much nicer. Leven is one of those singers who is capable of lifting anything they sing to a higher plateau, while moving the listener to an almost euphoric state of consciousness. For the past thirty years, Leven has labored in relative obscurity, while consistently releasing majestic albums that are full of well-crafted and poetic songs. And then there is that comforting voice, tenderly caressing each song like a surgeon’s skillful hands.
Leven has been described as everything from “a great musical maverick” and “Britain’s lost rock star” to a “Celtic troubadour” and a “politically aware Scottish folkster.” While there is indeed a subtle Celtic thread running through some of the Scotland native’s songs — particularly his early solo material — it doesn’t overwhelm his compositions, or inspire visions of lush green meadows and long-skirted maidens traipsing about with jugs of milk. Leven’s songs are both poetic and mystical, and there is no doubting their emotional impact, but he can rant and roll like a rowdy rocker at times too. Just why this man is not much better known in the music world remains one of life’s more frustrating mysteries.
Prior to embarking on a solo career Jackie Leven was the lead singer of the rock band Doll By Doll in the late 70s and early 80s. They made superlative albums such as Gypsy Blood, Remember, and Doll By Doll, but never garnered enough radio play or retail sales to achieve any level of fame. After the band broke up in 1982, Leven went through a difficult period, to put it mildly. In 1983, as he was in the process of recording his first solo album, he was the victim of a mugging and was nearly strangled to death in the process. Lingering physical injuries from that attack left him unable to sing for many months, and during the ensuing “period of psychic disorder” he lost his recording contract — as well as many friends — and starting using heroin. After a successful period of rehab, he “rejoined the world” (in his words) in 1985, helping to start the Core Trust, a program that uses a holistic approach to treat addiction.
Between CD shops in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, I’ve managed to find a lot of Jackie Leven’s solo recordings (there are now about 20) over the past decade. One of the CDs I found at Rock Corner in KL recently was a double live disc called Haunted Year: Winter. Each disc highlights a separate concert, in this case Men in Prison (recorded at a men’s prison in Norway) and Munich Blues (recorded live in Germany). This album was part of a limited edition Haunted Year series he released in 2008 that, appropriately enough, includes Spring, Summer, and Autumn volumes. The sound quality on Winter is excellent and Leven’s performances are flawless. In addition to the music, what I found most intriguing was Leven’s between songs spiel. At the prison in Norway he talked about his own time in prison, as well as his heroin addiction. Compared to his loose and jokey onstage patter in Munich, he’s more reserved and sounds a bit uncomfortable speaking to the prisoners in Norway. But even in that setting, when he’s singing his songs, the honesty, compassion, and sincerity come pouring out of his soul.
Jackie Leven’s latest album, Gothic Road, was released in 2010 and continues his impressive, if neglected, musical run. You know you are in for an unusual listening experience as soon as the first song, the title track, opens with vocals from a group billed as the “Ghost Voices of the Kursk.” In fact, they are the real brothers of some of the Russian men who died in the Kursk submarine tragedy. Other than that unconventional prelude, there isn’t anything particularly strange about the album: it’s just another consistently good offering from Jackie Leven. Another song, “Cornelius Whalen”, features the legendary Ralph McTell (who wrote the much-covered “Streets of London’) on vocals. The only weak link on the album is a silly ditty called “Hotel Mini Bar.” But considering the strength of the rest of the album, we can forgive Jackie Leven for that slight indulgence. The songs on Gothic Road run the gamut from soothing to inspiring, summing up what Jackie Leven’s music is all about.
Leven is also a friend of author Ian Rankin (in fact, he has been name-dropped in a few of Rankin’s Rebus novels), and the two recorded an album together in 2005 called Jackie Leven Said. But this was no ordinary Jackie Leven album. Instead, it’s described as “a short story narrated by Ian Rankin with musical interludes and songs written and performed by Jackie Leven.” Those pieces were performed in front of an audience in Edinburgh. The two-CD set also includes three new Leven studio songs and a selection of Leven and Rankin’s favorite songs from the singer’s previous albums.