Not many artists that could sing about heroin addiction, single fatherhood and The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ without being dour. But Jackie Leven can. And he sings it with humanity, empathy and a genuine smile.
Straight Outta Caledonia is a methodically chosen compilation of a man with decades of songs. At one point Leven’s output was so great he convinced his record label to let him use a pseudonym just so he could get more of his work out. Leven started off a troubadour, founded the Celtic inspired post-punk band Doll by Doll and even did an album with Ian Rankin. Incidentally, Rankin thought his lyrics were so good he pinched some for the name of a Rebus novel Saints of the Shadow Bible without ever finding out what those lyrics actually meant.
It’s a slim album. Ten songs. Less than fifty minutes. Like all compilations, fans will express dismay at the exclusions (What? No Call Mother A Lonely Field?!) but no album shy of ten hours could encompass anything but a taste of Leven’s legacy. It’s not the job of this album to cover the man’s overlooked and glorious career, it’s here to paint the broad shapes and is a wonderful invitation for listeners to seek out the beauty of his minute brushstrokes themselves.
Leven paints Scotland’s highs with Straight Outta Caledonia and its lows with Heartsick Land. His authorial style and ear for dialogue lets him paint a myriad of stories and feelings in between.
Not that Leven only sings of Scotland. His songs might have roots in his native soil but they flower abroad, much like his reputation. Then there’s a track like Poortoun that sits alongside Billy Joel’s Allentown and Springsteen’s Youngstown: an aching portrayal of a declining industry and a people who aren’t far behind. Rarely is Leven compared to his international singer/songwriter brethren but at his best, as this album proves, he is more than deserving of a place amongst them.
Leven passed away in 2011, a few days before his next gig. After his passing, his long-time partner Deborah Greenwood found notebooks filled with lyrics. These may never see the light of day but for the fans there is a rich back-catalogue to enjoy, one that yields a little more with every listen. For the unindoctrinated, this album represents an intelligent cross section of work from Scotland’s greatest hidden gem. With a little luck this compilation will help Leven the sensitive giant move from hidden gem to national treasure.