Robin James - Saint Jude

Ian Atherton 09/12/2009

Rating: 4.5/5

Remember the first time you heard Tom Waits? Pretty surprising, yeah? Amusing even. He can't be serious. Ridiculous. Same with Kraftwerk - “we are the robots” indeed. Hilarious. And don't even mention Daniel Johnston... But as time went on, and the songs and the sounds sunk in, the beauty and quality began to shine through, and their singular, pioneering visions became clearer and clearer.

Let's be honest: the first time you hear Robin James, you'll stifle a giggle, if not a pretty hearty guffaw. But it's not because he's funny, it's because you've never heard anything quite like it. Listen again. Hear the tenderness in his peculiar falsetto. Hear the compassion in his fragile quaver. This is real. This is what music should be about. Unfiltered communication.

Recorded in a few hours, into one microphone, with chords James taught himself, this is truly startling stuff. The closest comparisons would be Elliott Smith stripped of his thick production blanket, or a helium-tinged Nick Drake at his most despairing, or the classic lost early 70s singer-songwriters (Simon Finn, Gary Higgins, Perry Leopold) reincarnated.

Opener Saint Jude sets the tone - stark, fractured, brittle, but with a dark humour (the Beatles' Hey Jude is briefly referenced) - while the haunting and haunted second track Postcard is one of the strongest moments here, its harsh whisper striking a hopelessly emotional tone. There's light in the darkness though - Alive That's All is strangely uplifting, riding on a chuggingly simple Nick Drake guitar pulse, while Going Blind's refrain of “Let's go riding” also gives a curious impression of freedom and optimism.

Throughout, James's lyrics are brutally bleak, influenced by his experiences living in London (“The streets are killing me”) and his impending move to Yorkshire, just hours after the album was recorded. His words are at times elegantly oblique, and at times almost childlike in their simplicity - the poignant Van Gogh investigates the painter's mental state, with James remarking that “I feel alone and a knife is near, but that's no excuse to cut off your ear”.

The only slight misstep is the inclusion of Rag Doll Girl, which fits thematically, but was seemingly recorded at a different session, and its thin sound and heavy strumming jar with its densely downbeat surroundings. A re-recording would have helped it fit in better, especially as it leads into the gently troubling Lullaby, which closes the album with the line “I'm losing marbles daily, go to sleep now baby”.

The titular Saint Jude is the patron saint of desperate cases and lost causes. It's a darkly romantic reference, and one that fits the subject matter perfectly, but musically Robin James is clearly anything but a lost cause. Give him a listen. Then listen again. You won't regret it.