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It has been revealed that the second album by Swimmers Jackson (né Niall Jackson), Now Is All, was written and recorded between March 2020 and March 2022. Oh man, you know what that means. “With no opportunity to tour given it was the very start of a two-year pandemic, Jackson took to writing as many songs as possible to document the feelings of that time,” read the press notes.

Talk about a bold peg to hang the album on. If you are privileged enough to enter the collective blackout that seems to have afflicted many people’s ability to consider those two years, you have probably done so. Like being confronted by the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, the nation has taken a “don’t move a muscle” approach to Covid-19 remembrance – say as little as possible, lest bad things happen once more.

The feeling of lockdowns – and they absolutely had a feeling, an atmosphere, which I tap into clearly when I recall seeing a fox cross Dame Street in the silent night – is consigned to a very deep crevice in our brains, rarely accessed.

Thing is, Now Is All doesn’t feel like that at all. It’s eight songs of carefree, endearing, highly approachable guitar pop and AM radio rock music. It’s also one of the year’s best Irish albums so far.

Some background: the Swimmers Jackson project grew out of just Swimmers, a Dublin band comprising Niall on guitars and vocals, Barry MacNeill on bass and Steve McCann on drums. The trio released just two EPs (Swimmer’s Year in 2013 and This Burning Circus in 2015) of straightforward rock‘n’roll tunes featuring open chords, unfussy arrangements, and Irish personality – I mean, “The Search” had the audacity to rhyme “city” and “pretty”.

But after absconding to London, Jackson opted to strike out as a solo artist under a new moniker. A first album, titled Murmuration, arrived in 2020. American indie bands like Iron & Wine and The Shins were the obvious stylistic forebears, as was the more rudimentary source material of 1960s pop, rock and beat bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Byrds and The Beach Boys. Like the latter, Jackson seemed determined to live in a utopian summer setting. Songs such as “Bliss” and “Summer’s Here” feel like they are meant to be played as you lay about on a picnic blanket with a rapidly warming can of beer.

The recording of Now Is All took place in Castletroy, Co. Limerick, with only producer Micheál Keating and drummer Brendan McInerney, both of the band Bleeding Heart Pigeons, credited as assisting Jackson (some additional vocal work also took place later, in Peckham, London).

The result is eight songs made up of simple, sparse arrangements, the instruments comfortably squishing together like a group of mates on a sofa. So a jangly gem like “Catapult (Me There)” has a strummed guitar, neatly played drums, and I had to turn it way up but yes, I think I can detect a bass in there too. As before, the good vibrations of ’60s pop and its vision of the perfect summer are easily detectable on these tunes.

That’s not to say that Now Is All is one-dimensional. With a chorus that achieves lift-off, the title track veers more into power pop terrain. And “Stripped Away”, the single that preceded the album (released in a shortened form with the gloriously old fashioned “Radio Edit” signifier), has a dusty Americana feeling. You can picture it kicking in as Red Dead Redemption’s John Marsden rides through the wilderness.

The choruses throughout the album are catchy and pleasing, and Jackson’s voice has a slight humming texture that helps him carry the melodies, casting a thin haze over the scant instrumentation.

But if the sound is as familiar and comforting as a well-worn jacket, Jackson’s songwriting takes unusual angles. “Protest Contest” simultaneously regrets the disappearance of great protest music, while criticizing modern-day activism. The track’s final minute and a half is about the only point of the album where the music gets a little dissonant, reflecting Jackson’s frustration.

The sweet sounds of “Kick ’Em Hard” run counter to a song about women who feel they must take precautions at certain times and in certain settings to protect themselves from men. A lyric like, “It hurts me so, that she can’t go” might come across as corny, if the language elsewhere wasn’t so abrasive: “Kick them hard, bite down slow / Shout for help, is that how this goes? Oh how it shows.” The plot of the song is ambiguous, but the clear message is that parents need to raise their sons outside of toxic masculinity.

These are rare moments that run counter to the breeziness of Now Is All, the kind of album you can throw on during a long drive and immediately restart it when it ends. Over the twangy guitars of “Red, Red Evening Sun,” Jackson even envisions escaping the city. Because this is an album for summers outside of urban trappings, right in time for the season.

Swimmers Jackson played The Workman’s Cellar on 28 May.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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