Since his recording debut in 1983, Martyn Joseph has released 20 solo studio albums, first coming to national prominence in 1992, after being signed to Sony, with the single Dolphins Make Me Cry and attendant album Being There. That was my first encounter, and I’ve followed and reviewed every new album since. Not once have I been disappointed.
The run remains unbroken with his 21st, Sanctuary is an album that reunites him with Being There’s three time Grammy winning producer Ben Wisch, assembling the core recordings at the latter’s New Jersey studio, laying down nine songs in two days with musicians that, among others, included bassist Zev Katz, Kevin Barry on guitar and drummer Ben Wittman, with Wisch himself on keyboards.
The songs, as ever, are a mix of the personal and political, opening with I Searched For You, a strummed, trademark-sounding folksy number with a Springsteenesque shuffle that seems to address a crisis of faith (“found and lost you on the way”) faced with a world torn between blessings and curses. A similar theme informs When Will We Find?, an urgent, driving bluesy fingerpicked number about how “peace love and justice, keep walking the other way”.
There’s a lighter musical tone and more optimistic note to The Light of Guatemala, a walking rhythm number that speaks to his Bruce Cockburn influence, where human endurance (it ends with the Spanish word Somos and its English translation as ‘we are’) as the light “pours hope into the day.”
The call for change continues with Bobby, a song that says the world needs the ‘candid honest and poetry’ of Bobby Kennedy, its watery guitar sound and keyboards evoking the Irish roots of the family’s heritage, quoting the line ‘Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?’ spoken by Edward Kennedy at his brother’s funeral, a paraphrase of Bobby’s own quote from George Bernard Shaw.
In March, as part of the Let Yourself Trust, which he set up in 2014 (as mentioned on Folk Radio UK), Joseph was one of a group of volunteers who rebuilt a demolished home in Palestine. While that specific event may not have been the impetus behind The Luxury of Despair, with its cascading chords and moody guitar the song draws on his visit to the Middle East and Palestinian refugee camps, his anger at what he saw (“a twelve year old taken into custody, scared and scarred and stripped of rights”), but also the inspiration taken from the people (“There’s hope in the eyes of the hopeless still”).
It’s back to the blues for another call to action and rebirth with Are You Ready?, electric guitar and keys recalling the swirling, disoriented feel of Mama Told Me Not To Come before things take a lyrical swerve for Her Name Is Rose, a tender song about his mother and the unswerving love and support she’s given him. Despite the title and liberating army imagery, featuring Antje Duvekot on backing vocals, the slow swaying Knopfler-like Girl Soldier also seems a more personal song.
Quite possibly about the same person (in the first he’s throwing flowers at her feet, in the second he’s dancing at them), taking up ukulele, things get lightheartedly playful with the breezy, whistling love song Cherry Blossom Girl with its lines about drinking tea in a café by the (Cardiff?) Bay.
The album’s final two self-produced numbers were recorded in hometown Cardiff, the first being the contemplative title track, a rare instrumental number featuring just acoustic guitar, followed by, again with just solo guitar, Land of Evermore. It’s a not only love song to the Welsh valleys where he was raised, with its references to the Brecon Beacons and the soaring red kites, but, talking of the resurrection robes of honour and how the hope and harp will not be silenced, it’s very specifically about Blaenavon, once the centre of the region’s iron and coal industry and now a World Heritage site, the Rebecca in the lyrics quite possibly a nod to the town’s regeneration officer, Rebecca Hartley.
Both universal and intimate, inspirational and affirming, it’s another superb contribution to Joseph’s art and activism, a safe haven from the bluster and banality that often passes for the music world’s social commentary. Seek asylum within.
Review by: Mike Davies
05 Nov 15 BELFAST The Errigle, 312 – 320 Ormeau Rd, Belfast
06 Nov 15 BELFAST Martyn in Conversation with Steve Stockman @ Fitzroy Church, 77 University St, Belfast
07 Nov 15 KIRKBY STEPHEN, CUMBRIA Acoustic Tearoom, the Masonic Hall, North Road, Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria – SOLD OUT!
08 Nov 15 CANTERBURY Gulbenkian Theatre (Folk In the Barn), University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent
09 Nov 15 STAFFORD Gatehouse Theatre, Eastgate Street, Stafford
12 Nov 15 WORCESTER Huntingdon Hall, Crowngate, Worcester
13 Nov 15 HULL Fruit, 62 Humber Street, Hull
14 Nov 15 FARNSFIELD ACOUSTIC Rainworth Village Hall, Kirklington Road, Rainworth, Notts
15 Nov 15 SHEFFIELD The Greystones, Greystones Rd, Sheffield, South Yorkshire
19 Nov 15 CARDIGAN Theatr Mwldan, Bath House Road, Cardigan, Dyfed
20 Nov 15 BUILTH WELLS Wyeside Arts Centre, Castle Street, Builth Wells, Powys
21 NOV 15 SOUTH PETHERTON The David Hall, Roundwell Street, South Petherton, Somerset