It’s amazing how divisive Fionn Regan’s second album was. ‘The Shadow of an Empire’ was an altogether more plugged-in affair than the stripped-back ‘The End of History’, and it was seen by some as Regan doing a Bob Dylan and alienating his fanbase with an unexpected shift in direction, no matter how much he didn’t mean to. By others, it was a move to be applauded - a case of the acoustic troubadour considerably beefing up his songwriting. It may have seemed confusing on release, but with a year-and-a-half’s worth of hindsight, we can say it was a great move: a studio experiment that was rarely recreated live, sure, but a great move all the same.
Regan steers well of ‘…Empire’ in his live sets, but that’s not to say he’s not fond of it - after all, this was the album he created after what was meant to be his second album was rejected by his former record label. He struck out on his own, took some risks, and reaped rewards. It might seem strange to some, then, that he’s gone back to doing what he does best for his third album. It’s not that he’s playing it safe, but simply developing what was there before, and in doing so he’s created what is undoubtedly the most beautiful album of the year.
‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ is not ‘The End of History Part 2’ - it’s so much more than that. While the debut was mainly just Regan and his guitar, ‘Sycamore’ comes absolutely drenched in strings. They can be found in most places on this album, used to spine-tingling effect on the title track, and adding a new dimension to much of his new material. It’s quite surprising how much difference one small addition can make. What’s also changed is the tone of the lyrical content - we challenge anyone not to be moved by the heartbreaking ‘Dogwood Blossom’, easily the most despondent song Regan’s penned to date and one whose impact is increased tenfold by the appearance of the strings: ‘Loneliness keeps you constantly awake / You contemplate the river bed, turn off the dark thoughts in your head / That dam’s gonna give; it’s inevitable, the way that you live.’
As its title suggests, the six-minute ‘Vodka Sorrow’ is similarly pessimistic, but songs like this are wonderfully contrasted with heartfelt songs like new single ‘For A Nightingale’, on which Regan sings, ‘I love you and I always will’ with such conviction that its made clear that whoever the ‘nightingale’ is, she’s one very lucky woman. Speaking of women, Regan’s old wit and whimsy reappears on ‘Sow Mare Bitch Vixen’ on which he admits that he’s ‘always had a thing for dangerous women’. This track is the album’s second, and it’s perfectly placed, helping to ease the listener into the album after they’ve been left breathless by the title track, and setting up ‘The Horses Are Asleep’ in fine style.
This excellent flow continues throughout the entire album; not one song feels out of place. Unashamedly big songs like ‘North Star Lover’ rub shoulders with more reflective moments like ‘The Lake District’ and ‘Woodberry Cemetery’, but Regan chooses to close the album with a song cut from similar cloth as the latter: ‘Golden Light’ is there and gone in the space of two minutes, yet its gorgeous melody will remain in the listener’s head for days afterwards. ‘100 Acres of Sycamore’ is a complete work, touching on all sorts of emotions and devastatingly beautiful throughout. For some, this will be what his second album should have been; others will say it was the moment when Regan came into his own as a songwriter. We’re in the latter camp. Take a bow.
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There’s a sort of stately, rolling beauty to the pace of the album.