Superb songwriting, rich content, nuanced production, spiritual insight and a fervour for humanity help make this warm and poetic collection a possible career best.
Artist: Joseph, Martyn
Label: Pipe Records
11 Tracks / 45 Minutes
After a couple of releases, where he made efforts to connect more with his audience (that did not convincingly work for me) he has come along with a superb set of songs that serve as an excellent, well-rounded introduction to his passions, roots and talents. They will also delight any long-term fan.
Without losing the fiery quest for justice that drives him, he has managed to fill his songs with warmth. Swipe me, he even whistles jauntily on “Cherry Blossom Girl”!
We never get a direct divine reference from Joseph anymore, but opener “I Searched for You” sounds like a spiritual manifesto that indicates he’s still hungry for God, despite the bumps on the road.
“Seen a lot of surplus but in the wrong place
And in the eyes of the broken I thought I saw your face...
I searched for you and I’d do it again.”
“When Will We Find?” is a simple, rootsy, bluesy appeal for peace, hope and justice that is echoed in style later by “Are you Ready?”
Unusually, there is only one co-write with poet Stewart Henderson, and I wonder how much Joseph – after more than twenty studio albums – has found his own lyrical voice. He has produced so many naturally fluid and poetic nuggets here. For example, in “The Light of Guatemala,” which continues his long tradition of meeting and writing about the poor across the world, he sings,
“The El Fuego volcano spits a little each day
Best to let off a little steam than keep it in, they say....
’There is nothing to admire here’ says Tita, a mother of three
But the warm wind through the cornfield begs to disagree.”
In “Bobby,” he picks out lines from Bobby Kennedy that echo his own heart:
“Some men see things as they are and they say, ‘Why?’
I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
As well as tributes to his Welsh homeland and Bobby Kennedy, there is another to his mother, and – if my reading between the lines is correct – yet another to his wife.
Above all these, the best tracks for me, as well as the opener, are the ringing instrumental title track, which, despite his reputation, surely again owes more to Bruce Cockburn than Bruce Springsteen; and a Palestine-inspired archetypal Joseph anthem “The Luxury of Despair,” which has just about everything that makes him a great singer-songwriter: graphic storytelling, empathetic spirit, driving rhythm, musical finesse, an undoubtable fervour for his cause – and a mighty tune that means you’ll wake up the next day with it still ringing in your head. This will surely be a highlight of his live shows for years to come.
For eyes that are watching, there seems to be plenty of spiritual code. Lines like “Stars of wonder falling silent / That’s not our light upon the hill” probably refer more to Jesus’ words than to Washington.
This is his first collaboration with producer Ben Wisch for many years, and it has paid off with a sound that unobtrusively colours in the songs, such as on the dreamy end to “Bobby.”
What he has mastered on this collection is being invitational, rather than confrontational. Yes, he’s rightly angry about things that are wrong, but rather than pointing the finger, he is beckoning with his hand, calling his listeners to join him. It’s a long slog, but they’re in it together – as “I Searched for You” observes, “Seen a lot of suffering, seen a lot of good / Felt the big life love of a neighbourhood.”
Sanctuary comes highly recommended. I’d rate it as the best he has made since touchstone release Far From Silent – and I might actually prefer it even to his compilations of favourite songs. It’s that good.