The music of Welshman Martyn Joseph has been on the extreme periphery of my life over the years. My only previous exposure, Joseph’s 1993 album Being There, was a decent singer-songwriter effort I listened to a few times and promptly shelved. The album’s obvious virtues—Joseph’s compassion and social conscience, his fine eye for detail, his passionate vocal delivery—were undercut by an overly slick production and a sometimes too sentimental, cloying lyrical approach. I didn’t give it much more thought than that.
But that was almost ten years ago, so I was totally unprepared for the startling revelations on Don’t Talk About Love, two recently released live albums culled from Joseph’s concert performances over the past decade. Shorn of the studio gloss, these albums are forced to stand or fall on the basis of a powerful Springsteen-like voice, an acoustic guitar, and a batch of heartfelt songs. They succeed stunningly.
The songs come off well because Martyn Joseph is a consummate, unsparing observer of the human condition who lyrically captures the aching and the longing—indeed, that’s the title of one of his best songs—better than almost any songwriter going. Consider "The Good In Me Is Dead," written from the viewpoint of a young boy in war-torn Kosovo struggling to find something life-affirming amid the human wreckage. Listen to the litany of lost moments, connections almost made, important words never spoken on "Everything in Heaven," in which Joseph laments, "Everything in heaven comes apart." There’s "Working Mother," in which Joseph chronicles the story of a prostitute for whom life consists of a series of "fifteen-minute mauls," and who wonders if life can possibly offer more than this.
Because of the social commentary inherent in many of these songs, their closest musical genre is probably good, old-fashioned, folkie protest music, but protest music doesn’t begin to capture the battles fought in microcosm, over human hearts. Those are the battles that interest Martyn Joseph. He makes smart music for grown-ups, and although he offers answers, they are not easy ones. His songs revel in the contradictions between faith and despair, the promise of heaven and the indignities of life on earth, the power of love and the awful things human beings do to one another. But always they hold out the offer of hope like a life preserver. Here, latch on to this; there really is something better.
Outside of hope, you could latch on to few better things than either or both of these live albums.