Sunday, 15 July 2007

Top 100 Albums - #94: Deep Blue (2005)

Deep Blue is the latest album by Christian singer-songwriter Martyn Joseph, who though relatively unknown has had a career spanning nearly a quarter of a century.Joseph had been recording and releasing albums since 1983, but he has since dismissed the five albums recorded before 1989 as 'crap'. The success of the self-released An Aching And A Longing (1989) convinced Sony Records to sign him, and he produced the albums Being There (1992) and Martyn Joseph (1995). After being dropped, he signed to indie label Grapevine before creating Pipe Records. It was through this that he released his previous two albums, Far From Silent (1999) and Whoever It Was That Brought Me Here Will Have To Take Me Home (2003). Both were a showcase for his overt Christianity and satirical bite, leading up to Deep Blue itself.

The opener, 'Some Of Us', sets the musical tone of album very well - introspective acoustic guitar, backed by Joseph's earthy voice and overlayed with cleverly toned drums. Having said all that, while the chorus is quite attractive, the verses slowly get tiresomely repetitive (Some of us ____ at the start of nearly every line can get on your nerves after about two verses, let alone four. 'Can't Breathe' is a polished rocker with the kind of heartfelt lyrics which you might expect - up to a point. The chorus doesn't work, both because Joseph's voice as not suited to the topmost registers, and the lyrics are contrived: to understand what Why can't I can't breathe falling down? means you'd need the man himself, which most people don't have.

It is only with the next track, 'Six, Sixty Six', that things really get going. It's a country blues number whose mish-mash beginning - Joseph forgetting what thumbs up means - actually makes it more endearing. The song may seem about Jesus, with lines like In the midst of the war he offered us peace/ He came like a lover from out of the East, when in fact the title would refer to the Devil (talk about subtlety). It's quite rigid in structure but a very pleasant, undulating listen.

'How Did We End Up Here', as the title suggests, turns Joseph's attention to world events. It is not just your standard anti-war sentiment which comes to a poetic, if overproduced, climax here. It is also his revulsion at world leaders and opinion setters who exploit faith and religion as a means of power. Just look at the barbed-wire chorus:

We make the enemy confess
We're Jesus wearing battle dress
We chain 'em up and make 'em crawl
God bangs his head against the wall
Salute the troops with grave concern
Body bags, we never learn
Why interrogate the soul?
Doctor Strangelove's in control

When, since Bob Dylan in the 1960s, has anyone in folk music summed up world affairs so succintly and near-perfectly? This song is one of the best on the album, if not one of Joseph's finest compositions, not least because on this occasion he voice does justice to the subject, even if the ending is a little untidy. 'I Would Never Do Anything In This World To Hurt You' is more tender, sombre and Biblical, with lines like Judas sits within the Twelve tonight. It's clearly a love song, but one which suffers from clichéd violins which break into the final third just as Joseph seems on the brink of tears as Dylan never did.

While on the previous track the presence of violins created a clichéd, pop ballad feel, that is not the case on 'This Fragile World'. This is an amazing piece, with meandering poetry for lyrics, great guitar playing and sensitive production. The premise is simple enough - the world is a choatic and dangerous place, many bad things will happen, but God will see you through - but Joseph does not let things become banal. Quite the opposite. He takes this well-worn subject and lifts it with a soaring yet breaking voice which embodies the mood to the nth degree. It's his best song to date, combining all his best features - Christian compassion, soulfulness and introspection.

Before long, though, we return to barbed satire with 'Yet Still This Will Not Be'. This is more optimistic than 'How Did We End Up Here', the mood being that the world is getting worse but that judgement will come for all those responsible - This kingdom of the foe/ Will be humbled and laid low/ When the broken-hearted grow. remarked: "He's singing for the proletariat, for the feelings of the imperfect common man, among whom he considers himself." Whether in a Marxist way or not, they may well be right. This focus on the disaffected and dispossessed continues on 'Proud Valley Boy'. Littered with Christian references - referring to Jesus as a dragon who 'shone like ebony' - it is a tribute to the courage of the Welsh miners who lost their livelihoods in 1985 with the collapse of the Miners' Strike. It's a rouser, for sure, and while it is not on a par with 'This Fragile World' it is a worthy rival.

The final two tracks, 'Turn Me Tender' and an acoustic version of 'Can't Breathe', take things down too far. Both are too quiet, and while the former loses none of its emotional power, it is a bit cloyed and formulaic for even the least discerning folk fan. The closer feel like a spare part, a bolt-on that adds nothing to the original; if anything, all the energy that was passed off in rocky guitar has disappeared. This would be good as a concert closer, but otherwise there is little real point to it.

Deep Blue, while being hit-and-miss, is testament to Joseph's pedigree as an emotional singer-songwriter. You cannot fail to be moved in some way, shape or form by this album - for all its flaws and shortcomings, none of it sounds repulsively clichéd or formulaic. At times it is overwrought either lyrically or in the cleverly engineering production, but after a few numbers this actually becomes okay and you continue to listen with your senses adjusted accordingly. Joseph's future direction may be unclear, yet Deep Blue, like its predecessor, will always stand as one of the finest folk records cut in the last 10 years.

3.70 out of 5

No comments: