Music

Antifolk Singer Jinx Lennon: ‘I’m About Fucking Uplifting People’

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Around the midpoint of Magic Bullets of Madness to Uplift Grief Magnets, the shorter of the two albums Jinx Lennon released in October, comes something seasonal for the ides of January. Over spare electronics by two pals from the Liverpool band Clinic, Lennon chants a tunelet in his vigorously enunciated brogue: “Piranhas of Christmas/But in January they’ll be vicious/They will build a nest in the center of your head/God help you if you find yourself in the red/Uhh.” Setup: 41-year-old ex-junkie “wants to make it up to her kids” with flat-screens and such for the holidays, but like so many of the strugglers and stragglers Lennon chronicles sets her dream meter a tad high. Denouement: “One afternoon/Big knocks come/Big man walks in/He looks like Shrek/Bull neck/Gets her alone/When her husband is not at home.”

Chances are you’ve never heard of Jinx Lennon. Even in Ireland he’s far from famous, and except for a 2015 house party I got to attend, his only NYC-area gigs came in 2005 via Lach, whose amorphously contrarian “antifolk” catchall suits Lennon as it does few others. Structurally, he’s a singer-songwriter, earning his musical pittance performing his own songs over acoustic guitar. But that not only undersells his hyperactive show and ignores his live beat gear and studio horns, it misrepresents the aggressiveness of half-rapped, power-strummed rants far less predictable and more propulsive than, for instance, the rote metrics of original “punk poet” John Cooper Clarke. It misses how irrepressibly Lennon shouts and how insistently he repeats linchpin phrases. And it evokes a limpid lyricism he almost never trucks with, although he knows full well that his sing-along choruses are what render him inspirational in the end. My favorite goes: “No need to feel that you are a toerag/You’re not a scumbag, yeah, you’re not a scumbag.” But there are many others, and he means them all.

Lennon lives in and sings about his hometown of Dundalk in Ireland’s northeast corner, which in more storied times spawned both Cuchulain and Saint Brigid. Since 2000 he’s recorded seven albums for his own label, christened Septic Tiger in a prophetic dig at the Celtic Tiger, as the credit bubble then “modernizing” the Irish economy was dubbed by the kind of fool he isn’t. But by 2000 he was already 36, an age when most DIY-ers conclude that their music is avocational if the business of living leaves them time to play out at all. Not Lennon — not exactly. The oldest child of a line worker turned homeless counselor and a holistic healer, Lennon did construction in London after leaving school. Almost always in bands, he spent 1985 in New York, where he worked in a uniform factory and at South Street Seaport while supporting a vinyl habit long on Velvets and Television bootlegs. Then it was Dundalk and the dole and several more bands culminating in the alt-pop Novena Babes, whose sole SoundCloud track is far tamer than the solo music he’d soon put together. Yet in 2000 he too took on a job — as a hospital porter manning the night shift one week so he’d be free to tour the next. Seventeen years later, the 52-year-old father of a nine-month-old is still a porter. And he still plays out when he can.

This unusual profile explains a lot about a body of work you can stream on Spotify and buy from Amazon, although he’ll do better if you patronize his Bandcamp page. The two new ones are the Clinic-backed Magic Bullets of Madness and the hour-long Past Pupil Stay Sane, driven by a full band sound with plenty of rudimentary beatmaking, frequent trumpet, and occasional “girl voice” from his wife, Sophie Coyle. They’re his first new music since 2010’s National Cancer Strategy, which he now regards as “not enough fun” for reasons a listen to the gruesome revenge fantasy “Pink Scrunched Up Thing” will soon reveal. My own favorite is 2006’s Know Your Station Gouger Nation, which follows “Accept Yr. Hair Loss” with “Nigerians (Stop Going On About)” and precedes “You Are No Scumbag” with the spiritual “Forgive the Cnts” (“If you don’t forgive the cunts/You’ll never find the peace inside you want”) and the enraged “Rap-S-Scallions” (“Two kicks in the head for being old/Three kicks in the head for being weak”). But every one is worth hearing, and not merely because they’re so rooted in Dundalk, which for geographical reasons was more embroiled in the Troubles than most and has since suffered plenty of lower-case trouble under capitalism rampant.

Equipped with a memorable little tune, Past Pupil Stay Sane‘s “I Know My Town” isn’t a rap or rant. It’s fully a song, with plenty going on. Understandably, however, Lennon fans gravitate to its middle verse, which situates him artistically: “I know my town, I know my town/Me, I know every smell from sewer pipes to the chip shops to the bullshit I hear round me constantly.” “There’s good things and there’s bad things here,” he goes on. But though his lyrics adduce bits of local color that will add concreteness for any listener while only fully resonating with his Dundalk homies, I suspect he’d be writing similar songs in nearby Navan or Mullingar, because it’s the characters that make them extraordinary — the kind of working people country represents by shuttling hunks from the weight room to the roadhouse and folk music sentimentalizes when it remembers them at all. None of them are starving and none of them have enough money. More are good than bad, but none are saints and most are messed up — like the young woman with flavored latex on her bed table in “Next Slow Song You Hear May Leave You Pregnant” or the boring cousin in “Gobshyt in the House,” both old songs, or like the aged aunt serving a “sandwich that’s like insulation for six attics for 65 years” or the “10 O’Clock T Break Bollix” who puts co-workers down so the lads will like him but isn’t bollix enough to believe they do, both new ones. Of the four, only the gobshite is unsympathetic.

Except in the crucial sense that he understands class, Lennon is not a protest singer. Occasionally the rich will horn in for a few lines, but mostly Lennon means to warn the local good guys about the bad guys itching to fuck them up. His primary goal is to convince them that, as Past Pupil Stay Sane concludes, “Every Day Above Ground Is a Good Day” even so. No more than five-foot-six himself, Lennon gets heated about bullies, with a special animus for the rapscallion hards who kick heads for the fun of it, and has written more home-invasion songs than most people. These include “So Frightened,” the opener on his live debut album, which I found so frightening myself I assumed it was autobiographical until the part that explains it’s based on a newspaper account. When you stream it, pay attention to the spoken intro:

“Before I start off I just want to say something. I just want to say that if anyone around this town thinks I’m up here trying to take the piss out of people I just want to make sure, I just want to make sure that I am not about that at all. I’m about fucking uplifting people.”

Try it. It works.