What I Listened To When I Listened To Music This Week – Nat Johnson – Neighbour Of The Year

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

It’s not often we start an article with a quote from a 19th Century Baptist Preacher, but Charles Spurgeon is our man today, with his words on anxiety. Anxiety disorders are often sighted as diseases that affect the creatives of the world, fuelling a desire and perfectionism that’s both crucial to what they wish to achieve and crippling to their hopes of ever being happy with it.

Jeffrey Lewis wrote the absolutely fantastic track Anxiety Attack on the subject. It finds Jeff musing on his own battle with his internal monologue, battling the anxiety that “starts spinning in my brain, then it’s pounding in my chest.” There’s a series of crushing revelations that seem to spiral rapidly out of control. Every verse is a stunning rendition of the need to be a success in every aspect of your life, to not ever give yourself a break, or to be able to see the brighter side.

Jeff’s obviously not the only one who’s written a song about the subject. The Rolling Stones touched on it in 19th Nervous Breakdown, where Mick looked at a girl who on the surface had it all, but behind the riches and lifestyle was falling apart and dragging him down with her. “You were treated kind, but you were never brought up right. You were always spoiled with a thousand toys but still you cried all night.”

In How Soon Is Now, The Smith’s best song, Morrisey talks of being “the son and the heir of a shyness that is criminally vulgar” whilst on Ask he commented that “shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to” talking indirectly of the social anxiety that affects so many.

Perhaps the master of putting anxiety to tape is Mark Oliver Everett of The Eels. On the superb Thing The Grandchildren Should Be Knowing, he talks the listener through his battles, and how despite them all his life is not something he regrets or wants to end. “I don’t leave the house much, I don’t like being around people, makes me nervous and weird” the light at the end of the tunnel comes latter when he notes “I’ve got a dog, I take him for a walk. All the people like to say hello. I’m used to staring down at the sidewalk cracks, I’m learning to say hello without too much trouble” and sometimes conquering what seems like a minor challenge can be a stunning achievement.

Anxiety disorders are a common form of mental illness in the UK, with the Office Of National Statistics estimating over 10% of the population suffering a “disabling anxiety disorder” at some point in their life. Whilst anxiety is a normal response to stress or danger, when the response is out of proportion to the situation it can be a truly crippling problem, one that should be neither glamourised nor ignored.



Neighbour Of The Year is technically the debut solo album by Nat Johnson; previous efforts came either as part of Monkey Swallows The Universe, Without Feathers or alongside The Figureheads. In her own words it’s “a circular album that deals with the cycle of anxiety as I experience it” and the crucial word there is probably I. The nature of anxiety is that it’s in the eye of the beholder, it exists beyond the vision of anyone else, as such the album that it has spawned here is a deeply personal voyage. An album written perhaps not for us, but for Nat herself, allowing her to face her own demons and gain some perspective on her own mental health. It’s the old fashioned window into the soul of the artist, however in attempting to perhaps retain some of the grizzly details from public consumption, some artists hide that truth behind a curtain of metaphors, unpicking them can be a tricky task.

Opening track Not Now, Horse is about leaving problems alone, not dragging up “all your dirty dramas” but allowing yourself to “finish what you’ve begun.” Here a personal musing on dealing with your situation is given a greater world meaning with the lyrics littered with references to nature from “nesting sparrows” to “the cold dawn air” whilst also containing as far as we’re aware the only reference to turnips in musical history! Musically it’s a revelation, Nat’s always beautifully light voice, coupled with a backing that ebbs and flows perfectly, slowly building from a picked guitar, via a swells of string here, a roll of a drum there, and all the way through to a crescendo of brass, courtesy of the superb Stannington Brass Band. The vocal melody seems to work with the instruments to give a greater intensity to the piece, as the brass builds so does the intensity of Nat’s pronouncement, her voice soars, and the whole track seems to take off with her, before the tensions gently resolves to a lovely instrumental outro. A beautiful reminder, if it were needed, of the power of that most wonderfully Northern-institution, the brass-band!

I’ve Been Shot, is an argument in song form, and every bit as uncomfortable as that sounds, a lyrical cousin of Sharon Van Etten‘s brutally honest depictions of a troubled relationship. Lines like “Life’s a beach, I’m glass and rock all battered into sand” or “like the rain I die again, each time I hit the floor” would be painful enough without the horrible sense of someone still asking “I could understand that more, than what you do.” It’s a heavy emotional song, carrying with it an undertone of real sadness, in complete contrast to the beautiful music playing out around it, the explosions of layered vocals in the middle recall the other great lady of Yorkshire folk, Laura Groves, and the contrast between those rich multi-faceted harmonies with the rawness of the acoustic and vocal track elsewhere is genuinely arresting.

March, March, musically recalls the early Monkey Swallows The Universe track, Science. All muted bass notes and twanging high-end on an acoustic guitar, with a very minimal backing from a glockenspiel, allowing the clarity of the vocal to shine through, and shine they do. The round singing towards the end of track is a particular highlight. The sweet music contrasts the anger of the lyrics, a tale of being told to bite your tongue, and wanting to scream at the rage and injustice of it all “I’m sorry that’s alright, I’d forgotten I could speak” and how it can crush you to the point where “I’m gathering all these bad parts of me.”

I Can’t See You, is a love letter to the part of you that gets lost when you’re at your lowest ebb, “I let her go, she wasn’t having fun with me” Nat sings to the parts of her personality she can’t reach as “there’s just glass I’m looking through.” The clever use of layered vocals, give the whole thing a whistful feeling of longing, not for another but for ones true self.

If this all sounding terribly dark and heavy going, that’s where the cyclical nature of the album lies, like gathering clouds the darkness slowly gathers then passes. Neighbour Of The Year, is the start of the upswing. A lovely country number, all lilting lap steel and gorgeous rich vocal harmonies. It starts of referencing Carly Simon (or Idlewild for the younger punkier readers!) “This isn’t for you, it’s not about you.” Nat sings, that lyric alone carries so much weight, it’s the sound of casting off the shackles, and the whole song has a feeling of freedom. Be it’s referencing child-like wants like “riding a mountain bike” or just simply praising the neighbours who’ve heard all the dark times through the wall and are “the only ones who know.”

Dog’s a jaunty, ode to walking. Musically complex with ideas, and sounds popping out and dissipating almost instantly, be it an accordion, bird song, or a jaunty bell-like piano sound. The tremendous freedom of just being able to step outside, and embrace yourself for who you are is present throughout and it’s playful, a tad silly and utterly charming!

Closing track Shelter is a beautifully bare acoustic track, an ode to her home and everything that comes with it, played over a few gently strummed chords, and some mighty fine whistling! It recalls Laura Marling at her most laid-bare, and is every bit as good. The albums closing line is perhaps it’s most telling “You’re the only who’s seen in my head, you pulled me off the floor and put me to bed, in the middle of the room you held me and said Shh.”

Ultimately what Nat has created is a beautifully crafted set of tracks that tackle the brains own ability to destroy us, to take away the ability to simply function, to simply be the person we are. It’s no easy listen, and in the current musical climate an inward glancing folk album is something of an outlier, but it’s a clear labour of love, and an album that’s at once deeply personal and entirely relatable, it’s a triumph.

Neighbour Of The Year is out now on Straw and Hay Records.

Nat Johnson tours the UK next year, with dates starting at the end of January.

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