The Common Good
July-August 2003

It Has to Point Somewhere…

by Nathan Johnston | July-August 2003

Gathered from various concert performances over the past decade, Don't
Talk About Love—a 16-track album that spans a decade of Martyn Joseph's
work—plays ...

Gathered from various concert performances over the past decade, Don't Talk About Love—a 16-track album that spans a decade of Martyn Joseph's work—plays like a live show, stacking layer upon layer of audience interaction and Joseph's own spur-of-the-moment ad-libs to create a tangible intimacy. His strong voice and simple guitar melodies complement his songs, which invoke a social conscience and dig deep into the heart of the human experience.

Joseph's particular strengths are folkie protest anthems and lyrical narratives that capture the lives of ordinary people. "Being There" and "Sunday's Coming" blend a deep sense of spirituality and social critique into an almost-biblical rebuke, as Joseph aims his poignant lyrics against the Powers That Be and their disregard for the least of these. Showing his versatility as a songwriter, Joseph delves into the realm of theology in "He Never Said," offering a clever critique of "Christian" practices that have little to do with the teachings of Jesus. He later takes on the perspective of a young boy struggling to find something life-affirming amid the human wreckage of Kosovo in "The Good in Me Is Dead." In "Everything in Heaven," Joseph sings about the loneliness of everyday life and the frustrations that will only fall apart in heaven.

Joseph's music is deeply rooted in the human experience. While his lyrics often take on a political flavor, his songwriting is most alive in the stories of people. A careful observer of the human condition, he captures both the aching and longing of life as well as its beauty. In "Kiss the World Beautiful," he balances the friction of life against the beauty of the world. Even amidst the worst suffering and despair, Joseph uncovers what fellow songwriter Leonard Cohen called the cracks where "the light gets in."

IN RESPONSE TO the war on Iraq, Joseph released a five-track CD, The Great American Novel, to benefit the relief organization War Child. In his trademark style, he limits his political commentary to looking at the lives of real people and expresses frustration with war hawks only when he uncovers a human face. "It has to point somewhere," Joseph writes on his Web site. "There is no point in anger without another path to follow. Hope has to be offered up.... As I write this, the madness of a war that didn't need to happen is raging, and many people feel helpless and don't know how to respond. Maybe some of the answer is that we simply do what we can, and I guess this is all I could do."

Ultimately, for Joseph, it's the song that matters. Both albums capture his strength as a songwriter in exploring the struggles of the human heart. With a graceful intensity, he brings hope to us in songs that wade heavily through the paradoxes of life and that genuinely dwell in both the darkness and the light. In the end, "it's the song that can soothe," Joseph explains, "...and even in a small way save us."

Nate Johnston is receptionist and SojoCircles organizer at Sojourners.

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