I remember vividly the first time that I heard ‘The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ’ by outsider, Scottish troubadour Jackie Leven. It was 2001 and I was totally unprepared for and utterly mesmerised by the sheer audacity of Leven’s artistic reach and the epic sweep of his lyrics and music on that track. I couldn’t believe that someone could dare to put so many ideas into a single song – some artists never achieve the level of musical brilliance across a whole album that Leven achieved in that one song.
‘The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ’ features on Leven’s 2001 album ‘Creatures of Light and Darkness’ and is also the opening song on the rather humorously titled Straight Outta Caledonia, his first commercially available collection of ‘greatest hits’, out now via Night School (School Daze). It’s a selection of 10 songs from Leven’s enormous back catalogue and a brilliant primer for a genuinely unique, but massively under-appreciated artist.
It’s often the case that genius doesn’t get the commercial or critical attention it deserves in an artist’s lifetime. This was certainly the case with Jackie Leven who, despite his massive output of amazingly observed stories nested in epic, sad, unsettling and soaring tunes, remained largely obscure even in his homeland.
“I think he is one of the most astonishing lyricists Scotland has ever produced, and in his latter years he was a true troubadour, a balladeer of sad, unsettling and uplifting songs, songs that blossom and bear fruit as you listen to them. Here then is Jackie Leven in all his ripe majesty.” — Ian Rankin
Leven sadly passed away in 2011 but left behind a stunning legacy of over 30 albums under different guises or with his New Wave band Doll by Doll. Straight Outta Caledonia was collated by Night School Records on its archival label School Daze and kudos to the label for putting this record out and trying to bring Leven’s legacy to a new audience. Imagine hearing these 10 songs and then finding out there are more than 30 albums to work through. What an absolute treasure trove.
Leven’s style is genuinely unique to him. His vocal style, in particular, can traverse octaves and he sometimes adds a staccato, percussive effect. He’s often put into the Folk Rock or Celtic Rock boxes but his songs really don’t meet with neat categorisation well. If there was a category called ‘epic tuneful visceral alienation’ then that might work. All his work though is riven with vulnerability and openness and a reality of life. His songs are filled with characters we all know and those characters have led lives full of joy, despair and loss. They really get you in the gut.
I’ve already mentioned the majestic and ridiculously good ‘The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ’ which recasts the protagonist as a sexually frustrated man rather than the pure messiah of the bible story and makes it sound like one of the greatest songs you’ve ever heard. It’s like Leven said to himself: ‘Fuck it, let’s go for it big style on this one’ and then did just that.
Next track, ‘Straight Outta Caledonia’ is another gorgeous tune, rich with love for his homeland and like a poppier version of Dougie MacLean’s classic namesake song ‘Caledonia’. It’s a song full of yearning for a place that you love and delivers an anthem in joy that Leven just seems to pull out of his hat at will. His orchestrations and instrumentation are gorgeous and used with great aplomb.
‘Heartsick Land’ is almost hymnal and a beautiful, elegiac number. The sound of a choir just over in the next valley slowing rolling over the hills with gentle mandolins for accompaniment and, of course, Leven’s super-smooth vocals gets those hairs on the back of your neck raised. He manages to produces great tunes that as well as incredibly rich, dense lyrics W layered with imagery. It leads to repeated reveals on repeated listens.
His inventiveness and risk-taking pays repeated dividends. He pulls some blue-eyed soul out of the bag on ‘Irresistible Romance’ and then goes all ‘Africa’ by Toto on ‘Some Ancient Misty Morning’ which is driven by some sweet percussion and then develops into another epic number, with strings and organ, and a fabulous piano solo midway through. He is the master of using music to create a sense, a feeling, an emotion and sometimes counterpointing that with lyrics that are discordant like on the beautiful ‘Poortoun’ which is more like a pure folk song but with lyrics about death from heroin and the abuse of alcohol.
Leven’s skill is taking everyday stories of the brutality and the joy of life and dreaming up characters who can tell those stories. You can imagine the world outside of the boundaries he has painted without him having to paint the rest for you. He turns everyone who listens to his songs into imagineers and that is a talent few artists fully possess.
If you’ve never heard Jackie Leven’s work before, then Straight Outta Caledonia is a wonderful introduction to a singer-songwriter who revelled and excelled in representing the darkness and light of the world in his songs and managed to do so with a cinematic sweep that turned the mundane into the extraordinary. Sadly, despite his ferocious creativity and output in his lifetime, Jackie Leven never quite got the attention and accolades that his genius deserved. However, artists like James Yorkston and Molly Nilsson are now acknowledging his influence on them. Hopefully this wonderful release will bring Jackie Leven’s work to a brand new audience who can immerse themselves in his wonderful Scottish folk and rock fairytales and marvel at his amazing craft. That’s what his legacy deserves.
You can get your copy of Straight Outta Caledonia here.
1. The Sexual Loneliness of Jesus Christ
2. Straight Outta Caledonia
3. Heartsick Land
4. Irresistible Romance
5. Live or Die
6. Some Ancient Misty Morning
7. Snow in Central Park
9. Dagenham Dream
10. Single Father