Non Canon – ‘Non Canon II’

By Ash Bebbington

In January 2019, Barry Dolan was writing and demoing tracks for what would become ‘Non Canon II’. During this process, the first of what turned out to be many deadlines for the UK’s departure from the EU loomed large in his mind. At the time, the drama unfolding at Westminster was inescapable, with seemingly endless news notifications detailing the latest political soap opera, and this frenzied atmosphere had a tangible impact on Dolan’s latest work, which is packed with politically charged lyrics. If you like music to have a message, you’re in the right place.

Dolan, releasing music under the name Non Canon, has taken a path well trodden by many before him; a punk artist ditching the trappings of heavy music and playing heartfelt songs on an acoustic guitar. While his first record under the name Oxygen Thief – 2011’s ‘Destroy It Yourself’ – was recorded acoustically, the songwriting was unmistakably rock oriented, and later releases built on that sound by adding a full band. Dolan’s first release with his acoustic project – 2016’s ‘Non Canon’ – threw that style of songwriting out completely, focusing on a more folky, acoustic sound.

‘Non Canon’ was a solid, if somewhat apprehensive, first foray into the genre. With the release of ‘Non Canon II’, however, Dolan has truly found his feet as an acoustic artist. His ability to write songs in this style has improved, while he also sounds far more comfortable and confident singing in a more reserved and intimate manner. With ‘Non Canon II’, Dolan has put together a clutch of songs that fans of the genre are bound to love. If you’re already a fan of some of Dolan’s Xtra Mile label-mates, such as Frank Turner, Chris T-T, and Ben Marwood, this album will be right up your street.

Instrumentally, the record is relatively stripped back, as is typical of the genre. The songs are all built around Dolan’s vocals and acoustic guitar work, while the sound is bulked out with violins, pianos, and trumpets. The instrumentation is solid, but the real star of ‘Non Canon II’ is its lyrics.

Music like this lives or dies on the strength of its words, and Dolan is an excellent lyricist. The lyrics on 2016’s ‘Non Canon’ were almost entirely introspective and melancholy, but on this record, Dolan looks outside of himself for inspiration, while also adding a sense of defiance and hope. While ‘Non Canon II’ remains introspective, it also tackles contemporary issues, such as fighting bigotry, self-care in a world where bad news travels at light speed, and standing up to the older generation about hateful and outdated views. His lyrics show that he is both clued up on, and opinionated about, the world around him, and the record is at its best when it deals with current affairs.

The opening track ‘Never Say Never Again’ candidly addresses Dolan’s struggle with mental health issues, and how they can be intensified by the current state of the world. The song culminates with him refusing to try to understand the world’s problems for the sake of his own mental wellbeing. Lyrically, this song is fantastic, and is one of the standout tracks on the record.

With ‘Dark Force Rising’, Dolan has penned one of the truly great protest songs of recent years. As with many protest songs, the instrumentation is stripped back, giving the excellent lyrics space to shine. The phrase “you can have your own opinion / but you can’t have your own facts” is a defiant rallying cry against bigotry fuelled by misinformation, while the repeated refrain “you can’t complain / when we talk back” rails against bigots who are uncomfortable with their opinions being challenged. Both of these lines will no doubt be enthusiastically bellowed back at Dolan in a live setting, once gigs and festivals are allowed to resume.

‘Kingdom of the Crystal Skull’ is another standout track about self-care that encourages listeners to step back from the relentless news cycle and look after themselves. Given everything going on in the world at the moment, this takes on even greater poignancy, and is good, solid advice. If you’ve ever had an argument with an elderly relative about their outdated and offensive choice of language, you’ll strongly relate to ‘A Teapot and an Open Mind’, as the lyrics invite people who use bigoted langauge to evaluate their behaviour and make a positive change. In different hands, the song could come across as accusatory and aggressive, but instead it comes from a place of empathy and reasoning, as Dolan sings “it’s not your fault that you were taught wrong / but it is if you don’t change”.

With ‘Non Canon II’, Dolan displays a growth in confidence and proficiency as an acoustic singer-songwriter on an album that deals with thorny political issues in an intelligent, assured fashion. This is a great record that shows flashes of true brilliance, particularly on the tracks ‘Dark Force Rising’ and ‘A Teapot and an Open Mind’. The press release accompanying this album poses the question ‘will this be the dramatic finale, or the next in line of a trilogy?’, but it would be a great shame if this is the end of the road for the Non Canon project. It’s hard to shake the feeling that on a third release, Dolan could produce something very special indeed.

ASH BEBBINGTON

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