Richard Youngs, Geneva Cave12, 12 February 2017

Back in 2012, I made a fairly hopeful wishlist of the fifteen musicians I most wanted to see live. Fulfilling the list has been an uphill struggle, even though nearly all the people on it are still active and regularly touring; up until a week or two ago, I’d only been able to tick two of the fifteen off the list. Now, though, and thanks to the brilliant programming at Cave12, I’m able to tick off a third.

Richard Youngs has actually been on my radar ever since 2002, when I reviewed his early acoustic masterpieces Sapphie and Making Paper for The Sound Projector. I’ve kept an eye on his output since then, without ever attempting to keep up with the endless flow of releases that have appeared under his name. Every so often, though, I’ve picked up one of them and have been staggered by the variety and the creativity Youngs brings to everything he does.

One of my favourites of those later releases is Beyond the Valley of Ultrahits, perhaps Youngs’s poppiest and most immediate album. It was a knockout, therefore, to hear him sing “Collapsing Stars” from that record as the opening song of his Geneva concert, albeit in a lonely and desolate acapella version. Reflecting the incredible versatility of the man, the next two hours passed in a mesmerising whirl of drone guitar, delicate fingerpicking, shaggy-dog stories, audience participation, Fluxus playfulness and always that unmistakable yearning voice.

Youngs had set up the room in quixotic fashion, with a large carpet directly in front of the stage and a few seats further back. I had wondered what the carpet was for, and didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as Youngs occasionally stepped down from the stage onto the carpet and took several more acapella numbers at audience level. In between delivering his haunted, broken texts and stamping his feet to keep time, he encouraged the audience to add harmonies, bringing a strange feeling of unity to his long, questing ballads. Not since I saw the Copper Family and Shirley Collins lead the audience at the Royal Oak in Lewes in a stirring rendition of “Thousands Or More” has an audience singalong made such perfect sense.

Showing an equal flair for the conceptual and the ridiculous, Youngs presented the set as a selection of pieces from various categories, such as lists of numbers and one-chord tricks. Every so often he would solemnly intone a series of numbers or strum a single chord repeatedly, interspersed with laugh-out-loud stories related in his comforting Home Counties voice. It was never long, though, before Youngs broke out the moves on electric guitar, his inspired soloing and cracked, pleading vocals recalling near-namesake Neil Young.

Seemingly at a loss at one point as to which category to turn to, Youngs suggested exploring his voluminous back catalogue. This was the cue for a deranged fan sitting on the carpet to request another song from Ultrahits, which unfortunately Youngs didn’t know the words to. Undaunted, the fan persisted, this time calling for “something from Sapphie”, which Youngs conceded he “could probably remember”. There followed the evening’s most transcendentally beautiful moment, as Youngs’s reverb-drenched tenor and sublime arpeggios traced their way through the unbearably tender elegy “Soon It Will Be Fire”. Running it a close second for sheer heartstopping perfection, the encore of “Spin Me Endless In The Universe” (from 2013’s Summer Through My Mind), with its lonesome voice and slowly revolving guitar, sent us floating off into the Geneva night. Concert of the year? Don’t mind if I do, and it’s only February.

Richard Youngs: Inceptor, Atlas of Hearts

Richard Youngs is a true English original, clearly driven not only to make music but to make it his life’s work. With a discography currently running to around 50 full-length albums in many different styles and on many different labels, some completely solo, some with collaborators, on a bewildering variety of formats, he’s impossible to pin down or to keep up with. And that, of course, is what makes his work so fascinating. Youngs is no dabbler or bedroom no-hoper; I’ve heard only a fraction of his vast output, but what’s clear to me is that he’s a dedicated and serious-minded artist of the highest calibre. That he’s able to retain such a high level of quality across so many releases and such a breadth of styles is nothing short of remarkable.

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Richard Youngs: May

Richard Youngs follows up Sapphie and Making Paper with a third collection of unearthly minimalist folk songs. This time the album is shorter (a perfectly formed 36 minutes) and the songs less meandering than before, but there is no change in Youngs’ ability to hold the listener in rapt contemplation. There are six songs, starkly arranged for acoustic guitar and voice. Youngs’ strong, confident playing communicates a sense of pastoral longing and quietude, as in the slipping refrain of ‘Trees That Fall’ and the hypnotic, slowly turning phrase of ‘Wynding Hills of Maine’.

The lyrics are allusive, intensely solipsistic texts in which certain key terms – all/call/fall, bloom/dream/wynd – are combined and recombined in various permutations. This is far from being the sterile exercise it may sound. As with the novels and plays of Samuel Beckett, there is a distinctly formal rigour to the layout of the texts, and from that formalism comes a sense of mutability and return to the source. Cyclicality, and in particular seasonal change, are evoked in Youngs’ wistful imagery of blooming, fall and winter.

Youngs’ voice has a strained, yearning quality that permeates the songs and transforms them into bleak transmissions from a hermetic environment. It is this sense of a mind struggling to impose a structure on a world slipping out of control that enables Youngs to sidestep the obvious Nick Drake and Bert Jansch influences and turns May into a work of rare beauty and passion.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 11, 2003)

Richard Youngs: Sapphie, Making Paper

Two remarkable albums from a genuinely unsung hero. Youngs has collaborated with Brian Lavelle, Simon Wickham Smith and Acid Mothers Temple’s Makoto Kawabata. On these two CDs, however, he shows himself to be a singer of rare sensitivity in his own right, his distinctive voice arcing and swelling to perfection around baroque solo guitar and piano.

Sapphie is a reissue of a 1998 release on which Youngs sings and plays classical guitar. It’s apparently an elegy for his dead dog, although you’d be hard pressed to tell this from the lyrics, many of which are indecipherable due to Youngs’ unusual, almost strangled vocal style. Like the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser or the early Michael Stipe, Youngs intimates through loose, partly formed phrasing that he has found himself at the centre of a complex personal cosmology. The phrases that emerge and form the titles of the songs – ‘Soon It Will Be Fire’, ‘A Fullness of Light in Your Soul’, ‘The Graze of Days’ – reverberate with private significance. On these three long pieces, Youngs sings in tender howls of rage, while his guitar issues forth sublime arpeggios and cadences.

Making Paper is even more opaque and recondite, but no less compelling. The basic template is similar, but on this album Youngs plays piano. His vocal outpourings take on an increasingly unearthly form on the 22-minute ‘Only Haligonian’, the words tumbling and sliding in counterpoint to the ornate structures delineated by the instrument. The equally epic ‘Warriors’ is dark with foreboding, its skeletal text warning of battle and slaughter; while ‘The World Is Silence In Your Head’ provides a calm, much needed interlude.

These recordings occupy a strange territory between avant rock, folk and classical musics. Together they form a serious and profound body of work, daring in conception and immaculate in execution.

(Originally published in The Sound Projector 10, 2002)