Track Review: Sam Johnson: Stuck Under the Surface

‘Powerful in places, completely heart-wrenching in others, Sam’s musicality bursts through the surface.’

Intro to Sam Johnson
While Sam Johnson may have only begun releasing tracks in last year – with his two-part ‘Way Back Home/Perfect Circle’ proving to be an incredible debut – it’s safe to say that 2019 has been somewhat of a busy one. Performing at a multitude of venues across the UK and Europe, supporting a multitude of artists including Jade Bird,
Band of Skulls and Ferris and Sylvester and getting plays of his mid-year release ‘Medicine for My Brain’ on BBC Radio 1 and BBC 6 Music, it would seem everyone wants to hear him. And why wouldn’t they? With lyricism centred in honesty and musicality that touches at every note, his music connects on every level. 

Track Review
Instantly combining a mix of deeply resonant vocals with heartbeat-like kick drum, acoustic guitar and piano it’s hard not to feel immediately connected with the sound. Becoming clear that reflectiveness and honesty will – as with Sam’s previous tracks – play a key role, the initial line of ‘If only you could come back soon, see it from a different view’ shouts of the sensations that will be felt throughout. It has to be said though that with the seemingly upbeat accompaniment juxtaposing with these lyrics, it is also a very early moment of the hints to personal growth that are to come.

Having grabbed our full attention within the opening, the pre-chorus elements which follow produce the first evidence, in musical form, of that hinted growth. Changing in sound, but very much retaining the softness, Sam’s former solo vocal is joined by half-whispered multi-tracked harmonies. Bringing gentle emphasis to the lyricism – so gentle in fact that you almost miss the title lyrics as you pass through them for the first time – it shows great musical restraint. However, in doing this, it also ensures that when they are projected even slightly more, we experience them, and more importantly connect with them fully when they appear at the end of the powerfully folky chorus.

Keeping the energy within the track to this point consistent with what has come before, the connection between sections is as effective as the connection we find with the music itself. There are however key developments which gradually and stylishly make their presence increasingly known. Instrumentally, the accompanying elements start to get infused with unexpected changes of rhythm, delicate tom-tom hits and acoustic guitar based slides. Likewise, the harmonic elements of the vocals combined with increasingly heartfelt lyricism brings all over success. But that heartfelt nature is soon to come fully to the fore.  

Proving to be incredibly infectious, arriving at the pre-chorus for the second time a more groove-filled sound emerges. Filled with cross-rhythmic picking patterns and additional percussion, that personal and musical growth is truly on display. And having generated such a truly wonderful atmosphere, not one lyric stands a chance of getting missed even surrounded by the much developed setting.  Equally, when we hit the chorus and power through the vocally dominant bridge, the expressions of emotion – most notably those on lines such as ‘I was stuck under the surface’ and ‘I don’t even know my name’ – really hit home. However, what is to follow does so even more.

Turning to become completely honest and immensely personal, the track suddenly breaks away from the folky, acoustic yet dominant sound to reveal something much different. A sample. This is no ordinary sample though and nor is its use. Far from it. Set conversationally in more ways than one, a voicemail recording alternates with Sam’s main vocal. Given the heart-wrenching and touching content of what is said – which I won’t divulge here – it is a moment that truly moves you beyond compare.

Delivering the two sides of the story held within the track in such a moving way, it would be easy to feel overwhelmed. However, with the accompaniment retaining and further developing the material of earlier, connection is literally experienced from all sides. Yes, there is no doubting that on every listen you will be drawn completely to the words you are hearing. And yes it would be completely forgivable to miss the changes happening elsewhere. But, if you try to appreciate what else is happening only the tiniest bit, you will realise just how special the whole track really is. Go on, go and discover it now.

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Sam Johnson is part of Listen to Discover’s #FridayFindsFeaturedArtist series which you can keep up to date with on Twitter and Facebook.

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