By the time of his death in 2011, Bert Jansch was acknowledged by peers and a new generation as a guitar genius and a folk pioneer. However, the ride had not been smooth. From the Outside was released in 1985, as Jansch’s drinking reached a peak. Two years later, having come close to death, he had given up the booze and begun to get things back on track. From the Outside was a vinyl release on a small Belgian label and promptly vanished, reappearing briefly on CD in 1993 with two of the best tracks mysteriously removed. Now it has a posthumous re-release with missing tracks restored, and is ripe for reappraisal or indeed appraisal of any kind.
Self-penned, From the Outside is a difficult record, but it begins in an upbeat mood with pretty banjo-picking on ‘The Sweet Rose’, a teasing, nature-themed love song. However, its chorus of “Will you let me get to know you / I’m called the wild flower seed” contains hints of the themes of rootlessness, rejection and self-pity that dominate as the album progresses. Jansch writes melodies with the artfulness of early Crosby, Stills and Nash, but the 60s afterglow soon fades into parody. ‘Shout’ is a protest song that proclaims “You gotta shout that you don’t want the bomb”, but is clearly a transparent, hollow piece of nostalgia. ‘Who You Gonna Kill Now’ is similar, but worse.
Other tracks are deeply uncomfortable listening, tracking the disintegration of relationships. ‘Change the Song’ is full of promises of a new start and commitments to “see how other people cope with pain”. ‘Why Me (Still Love Her Now She’s Gone)’ says it all in the title, and features Jansch’s drunken Joe Cocker roar as he belts out the title, which is also the chorus. It is a deeply self-pitying song, musically remarkable but emotionally repulsive. ‘Get Out of My Life’ is equally upsetting, incoherent and far from sober. Jansch sings that he will “drink and drive the sins away”, addressing a ‘she’ who is either the drink or a person. By this point there seems to be no difference.
However, at least two songs makes the album worthwhile. ‘River Running’ is a fluid and beautiful song, with tumbling guitar arpeggios and magnanimous lyrics. ‘High Emotion’ is introspective, but lacks the sourness found elsewhere. Instead, it has the authority that comes from music that transforms personal trauma into something with universal meaning.
From the Outside is a strange and harrowing listen. However, even at his lowest point Jansch was a consummate musician. Few have been able to make an acoustic guitar talk the way Jansch did. He may have been embittered and drunken, but he could not stop himself from writing the most gorgeous tunes and or stop his guitar from telling the story.