According to his friends, Bert Jansch was in bad shape in the late ’70s. He’d gotten in some trouble with alcohol, formed a band called Conundrum, and made an instrumental concept album about waterfowl called Avocet, but the famed Scottish guitarist and songwriter was in need of fresh air when two young Californians named Rick and John Chelew invited him to L.A. to record an album in the summer of 1981.
Originally released in 1982 on Logo Records in the U.K. and on Joe Boyd’s Hannibal Records in the U.S., Heartbreak has been out of print for some time. Omnivore’s reissue arrives during a time of renewed interest for Jansch, who died in 2011. While Heartbreak has some problems— The Chelews had no previous recording experience and their enthusiasm for higher production values came at the expense of the lo-fi charm of Jansch’s early records—the record mostly finds Jansch exploring top material. The traditional “Wild Mountain Thyme” is classic Jansch, weaving the Northern tradition into the universal language of folk music. Guitarist Albert Lee adds spacey atmospheric electric guitar on songs like “Sit Down Beside Me” and “Up To The Stars,” and mandolin on “Blackwater Side.”
Other songs are less memorable—the bland blues-rock of “No Rhyme Nor Reason” and “Heartbreak Hotel” and the closing instrumental pentatonic blues jam, “Not A Word Was Said,” for instance. Moreover, the Chelews have opted for a revised tracklisting on the reissue, which doesn’t sit well, considering Jansch’s recent death. Still, Heartbreak is a bright relic in a complicated artist’s deep and often dark catalog.