Slávek Janoušek: This Is a Message

27 February 2019, 2:00

Slávek Janoušek: This Is a Message

"In the past, old people used to be as old as we allegedly are today" sings Slávek Janoušek in his song Alzheimer and Parkinson. The songwriter, who celebrated his 65th birthday last September, found aging as an extremely powerful theme for his new album. Tohle je vzkaz [This Is a Message] is an album not only about incrementing years of age, but also about how we increasingly appreciate our families and our  roots as we “grow old“. Although we can find very strong moments in all Janoušek's albums, Tohle je vzkaz can be perceived as the third part of the trilogy of his most powerful recordings – Kdo  to zavinil [Whose Fault  Is It] (1988), Tancuj a zpívej [Dance and Sing] (1997) and Tohle je vzkaz [This Is a Message] (2018).

Janoušek always divided his talent – let's omit his recent albums for children – between songs humorous and serious. At festivals, crowds applauded him for his account of peripeteias with his Škoda 1000 MB car, or for his reminiscences of army education (Pochodové cvičení [Marching Exercise]). Of a more durable value, however, are his more serious compositions, or those in which a strong theme is only slightly spiced with humour (such as the above mentioned Alzheimer and Parkinson, or Rozhovor s nádražákem [Interview with a Station Master] in the past). His debut album of 1988 brought songs where the author managed to tackle the problems of the end of the communist normalisation (1969-1989) period in such a way that in the end these lyrics have a timeless effect. Even though it is closer today from Brno to Vienna than to Prague, although we are no longer serving military service and the world around us is different, when listening to songs such as Kdo to zavinil? [Whose Fault  Is It?],  Mumie [A Mummy], Jakubovi [To Jakub], Rozhovor s nádražákem [Interview with a Station Master], Ve vlaku cestou tam [On a  Train on the Way There] or Divný suchý rok [A Strange Dry Year] you still get shivers. When ten years later Janoušek recorded another strong collection entitled Tancuj a zpívej [Dance and Sing], the social situation was different. This time, however, he was helped by a happy liaison with two bands – with the then very young Cimbal Classik and with Vlasta Redl’s band Každý den jinak. The sound variety of this album has never been repeated by Janoušek ever after. And songs like Svatý Martin [Saint Martin], Nerozlepený dopis [Unopened Letter], Na cestě domů [On the Way Home], the title  Tancuj a zpívej [Dance and Sing] or Hosté na Zemi [Guests on Earth] by Jiří Bulis are still among the best songs he has ever recorded.

In the next twenty years, Slávek Janoušek prepared two other albums – Letadlo [Aeroplane] and Nestíhám [Not Catching Up]. We can find very strong moments on them as well, but both lack the coherence and the overall strength of the two collections mentioned above. The strength, however, is now coming back mainly in the lyrics of the album Tohle je vzkaz. Janoušek writes in the booklet about the inspiration by the poems of a Chinese master of the 8th century, which he remotely remembered from school. On his website he then describes how he completed the unfinished album thanks to a dream. All this is interesting, but not a necessary context for listening. More important are the texts themselves – from the first one in which Janoušek still speaks with the words of the Chinese Li Po, through the following descriptive Narodit se po válce [To Be Born after the War], a confession named Tvůj vlas [Your Hair] or a really strong reflection of fatherhood (Každý potřebuje otce [Everyone Needs Father]) and parenthood (Tvoje ruce [Your hands]) as far as the above mentioned Alzheimer with Parkinson.

In the early 1990s, a question was pending  whether or not songwriters would have something to sing about after the fall of the regime. Nowadays, there is a growing need again to talk about social issues (see albums by Jaroslav Hutka or more than a younger generation younger Jakub Čermák), but a strong topic can also be found in the ordinary course of life of a person. Slávek Janoušek remembers the time when he was five or forty. Even in a single song, he jumps from a decade into another decade, recalls funny stories, brings about nostalgic memories... And when he philosophises, he does it non-violently and credibly. He searches for holes in a cloudy sky, begs for love and forgiveness, and feels like "still smaller a goalkeeper in a still larger goal". His metaphors, which only here and there enlighten his rather straightforward texts, are funny, original and at the same time non-violent. Equally natural is the interconnection of his own "ordinary" life with tragedies that many of us do not even perceive. When he reflects on how many people have already lived on this planet, he will say only by the way that "some were born and killed immediately, and some were not even born at all".

Choosing themes and working with the language make the album Tohle je vzkaz one of the most powerful Czech folk albums of the recent time, if we understand folk as music with message (because this really is a message). It is a pity, though,  that the strong theme failed to be wrapped in a more interesting music packaging. The folk-rock coat, which Slávek Janoušek gave with his accompanying band to this album, unfortunately does not match the sound that we expect from such a substantial album nowadays. Although good or even top musicians gathered in the studio (Josef Klíč and Luboš Novotný are masters of their instruments, and the rhythm section of Jakub Šimáně and Pavel Bříza is excellently crafted), however, the combination of Janoušek's intimate harmonies, the connection with his characteristic voice, the melody that one guesses already at the first listening – everything is perfectly predictable. No, it is not wrong. Only while the lyrics would really be running for the album of the year, the sound of  Tohle je vzkaz match more the end of the 1990s, when folk songwriters and previously purely acoustic bands started to discover the magic of drums and rock rhythm sections.

Slávek Janoušek – Tohle je vzkaz; Agentura JAN 2018m, 13 tracks + coda; time: 51:09 

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