Run of the mill for Joseph - there are some fine songs here, but they feel more remote than I hoped.

Under Lemonade Skies
Joseph, Martyn
Label: Pipe Records
Time: 10 Tracks / 45 minutes

I like it when a cover actually reflects something deep about an album. On this one, each song has an image – a hummingbird, a seahorse, a man – and on the front they float around together. That is how the distinct tracks feel. Some float happily next to each other, while others feel more distant from the songs abutting them on one end than on the other.

It’s a collection where some people’s highlights are probably others’ dim spots. Some might find “On My Way” a little overlong, but for me its understated chugging bluesiness is the high point of the collection, a perfect end track as it dips into the sunset-spangled seas of the mind to float and linger for hours. I can hear people exiting his shows singing this to themselves. It makes the next track, the actual closer, “Brothers in Exile” sound like a bolt-on bonus, even though for others it will surely be a highlight.

What is not on the disc is as striking as what is. With Bush gone, America is no longer in his sights (although co-lyricist Stewart Henderson gives it a portrait – more later) and with targets running out, his ire surfaces only for a quick reference to ‘”fundamental thuggery / with reserved places to park”.  

Musically, spiritually and lyrically, this is a centre-ground album. Gone are the rants that so well use his nasal gruffness, but gone also are the clear, tear-jerking stories to empathise with, such as “Please Sir” or “The Good in Me is Dead.” As if this is Joseph Mk. III or IV, he has also dispensed with the hear-it-solo-like-onstage approach, bringing back instrumentation, replacing the stark, mesmerising Far From Silent feel with a more cultivated and layered sound. Brilliant as that disc was, the new production is welcome, as the light, dancing banjo lifts the two tracks it graces, while elsewhere distant strings light up a warm space, and some of the low, sustained bass is a delight.

Ironically, I find that this thematically subdued album, which Joseph hoped would be companion for people along the road, feels more remote than usual, harder to access emotionally. The disc’s probable low point, “No Peace” failed to connect; likewise the melancholy Springsteen track “One Step Up” with its “two steps back” subtitle. 

One of the key tracks is “Brothers in Exile,” co-written with constant collaborator, poet and broadcaster Stewart Henderson. As the title suggests, it is a song from one excluded man to another, but is this supposed to be autobiographical of the two? And if so, why do they feel in exile? Distractions like this add up to make it harder to identify with several songs. Had Joseph not turned down an interview just before the disc was released, we may have been able to put aside some of these barriers.

But some songs do connect. The intimate “Seahorse,” which uses the image of the male seahorse carrying a couple’s babies, is a beautiful love song of dedication, as is another of Henderson’s lyrics, “You’re the Moment.” As a bulwark against the collection’s melancholy pieces, “There’s Always Maybe” tells that when a difficult relationship is not dead, there is always hope. 

If this track seems inspired by Bruce Cockburn, particularly in the way he strikes the top note of the acoustic riff and parts of the solo, then the guitar work on the following piece, “Lonely Like America,” sounds even more like the Canadian songsmith. Cockburn might appreciate the way that Henderson sketches widescreen images with plenty of white space around them, such as “cactus sculptures, widowed prairies” and “sepia wagon trains across Midwest plains.” Henderson is observing a nation that appears to be struggling to reconcile its lofty dreams with the realities that most of the planet – to different degrees – takes as normality:  
   "Norma Desmond’s withered mansion, Travis Bickle’s raging streets;
    Martin Luther King’s last journey from Memphis for the mercy seat;
    And now the curse of Steinbeck’s offering, the poor foreclosed and left to bleed,
    A wounded bear, a tethered eagle, are in a cage of make believe."

There seems to be an unusual lack of lyrical direction here, a mood that is hard to pin down and one that – with notable exceptions, such as the fine “On My Way” – I found hard to connect with. But at the same time, this collection’s polished layers are rich without being heavy. And virtually every track has something worthwhile about it and something different to the features of its neighbour. Full of interest, this has much to offer those who love a broad range of singer-songwriter material.

Derek Walker