McKinnon is a folksinger.
What does that mean? Well, what does it mean to you? That's what it means to him, too. Indebted to musical tradition? Yep. Progressive politics, impatient for change? Check. A foregrounding of lyrics, an excising of any line that isn't worthy of being sung? Absolutely.
'Sometimes a Notion,' McKinnon's debut album, finds the lonely singer - one guitar is all the accompaniment he ever gets - traversing a diverse array of songs. The settings vary wildly, from snowy Montréal to a steamy New York, the jungle of Colombia to a mythical Arizona, complete with talking snakes. Characters are flawed and recognizable: an every(wo)man trying their best - and failing - to consume ethically; a teenager translating his social awareness into cool points; an Instagram meme page admin who'll never be happy no matter his success. Behind their stories is the ever-present, comforting acoustic, usually fingerpicked, never more complex than it needs to be, always complementary. You'll probably notice a stylistic resemblance to a certain other folksinger.
Yes, McKinnon, perhaps through more than one lifetime of listening, has fully internalized the aesthetic of early-60s Bob Dylan. But the songs reveal other reference points from across the Americo-Canadian folk canon. 'Bowling Green Blues' suggests the wild abandon of Dave van Ronk, while the street-corner name checking and melancholic air of 'St. Urbain & Fairmount' conjure up images of the late Leonard Cohen. Almost-title track 'Sometimes You Get the Notion' has some-thing of the gentle spirit of Mississippi John Hurt in its deadpan blues drawl, and 'Another Side' evokes the laid-back groove of certain Velvet Underground songs. In fact, I've even heard people say that McKinnon is like "if Lou Reed were a folksinger" (never mind that of course he was a folksinger). From another angle, McKinnon resembles the finest lyrical questioners of today, Courtney Barnett and Parquet Courts' Andrew Savage, if they traded in their electrics for some-thing wireless - just like a young Bob Dylan once did (before reversing course again). For better or worse, everything comes back around to Dylan.
Musically and lyrically, there're probably more Dylan references here than all but the most devoted fans could spot on first listen. While this adds a layer of intertextual scaffolding, McKinnon says he was conscious of needing to pull off a potentially tricky balancing act. "I'm not a fetishist of the past," he asserts. "At least I hope I'm not. American folk music is a beautiful aesthetic, one that there's room for today, but it's meaningless if it isn't used to talk about right here and right now. That's what folk music is." Despite the heavy debt owed, ‘Sometimes a Notion’ is, always, miraculously original. In the final track, written in the aftermath of the tragic November week when America elected a tyrannical buffoon president, when Leonard Cohen died, and when the singer lost his own grandfather, McKinnon sings, "I have no words that have not been said." Nothing could be further from the truth.
- A. Walters
McKinnon's full-length debut, Sometimes a Notion, is available now on all major streaming platforms: