Martin delivers eleven hymns for the confessional on this most stunning and personal album.
Jeffrey Martin may currently be a name you are unfamiliar with but with the release of his new album, the remarkably understated ‘Thank God We Left The Garden’, one feels that situation is about to abruptly change. Originally from San Antonio and son of a Pastor, Martin had for many years been trying to balance teaching English at High School whilst working on becoming a full-time musicians, finally finding the courage to chase his dreams during the early part of the millennium. Now re-located to Portland, Oregon he has released three albums and one EP, prior to this most recent offering, starting with ‘Gold In The Water’ back in 2009 and culminating with ‘One Go Around’ in 2017, all showing glimpses of the potential he possesses but nothing that compares to this stunning collection of songs that make up his new album. What makes this all the more extraordinary is that what started out simply as demos, recorded in a tiny shack built in his backyard, eight feet by ten feet, alone around two microphones with the clear intention of later visiting a proper studio, has become the album itself.
Self-produced and engineered, the sparse arrangement of voice and guitar create a warm intimacy against a narrative of unadorned honesty rarely experienced, with just the occasional embellishment from either a classical guitar to add a touch of colour, or the electric guitar, supplied by Portland’s very own Jon Neufeld, delivering just the right amount of tension, whilst skilfully and subtly elevating the lyrical intention. Throughout the album’s eleven self penned tracks runs a spiritual theme subtly woven within the lyrical fabric that conjures up comparison with such album’s as Van Morrison’s ‘Astral Weeks’ and Gene Clark’s ‘No Other’, offering a reverent celebration of the asking, the searching, and discovering.
The opening number ‘Lost Dogs’, finds Martin confronting his own demons as he sings “Last night I was a lost dog running wild on the streets, looking back over my shoulder for the headlights glow”, his expressive and soulful vocal delivery conveying all the pent up rage of a man lost of direction and faith. This angst can still be heard on the following number ‘Garden’, but now there is a sense hope as he sings “In my mind there is a garden full of beauty and darkness, full of sorrow and sweet things”, as if his faith has been restored, not in its previous form but anew and enticing as later he sings “I want to know the secret, I want to peak behind the curtain”. Here one gets a sense of the spiritual journey Martin has subconsciously found himself on, carried along by the elusive relationship between a new dawn and a suppressed past. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than on the fourth track ‘Red Station Wagon’ which isn’t just a candidate for song of the year but one of the most important songs of the last decade. A song of guilt and betrayal, so intimate and honest in its narrative confession, and yet at the same time so powerful and liberating. Owning up to the ugliness of one’s past, addressing the derogatory homophobic language which was still accepted as the cultural norm only a few years ago, and seeking atonement through this story of transformation. Here he bares his soul, takes the walk of shame, and accepts his guilt, but not as some penance for a committed crime but rather as a celebration for the enlightenment he now embraces. It is truly an astonishing work of art.
There is a timeless quality about ‘Thank God We Left The Garden’ that enables it to belong both to the past and the present, connecting the likes of Richie Havens to Michael Kiwanuka, and Townes Van Zandt to John Moreland, whilst its stark and sparse arrangement immediately draws comparison to another Americana classic with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’. Martin also has a concerned eye on the future, sagaciously reminding us that life is a journey not a race as he sings “And all the answers of the modern age, they’re like skipping to the last page. Read the story and lost the race”, from ‘Paper Crown’. Elsewhere, he embraces his own mortality on ‘There Is A Treasure’, and exudes sadness and loss with the achingly beautiful ‘Sculptor’, while the final track ‘Walking’ perfectly encapsulates the philosophical disposition that permeates throughout an album that craves your full attention.
With ‘Thank God We Left The Garden’, Martin has delivered one of the finest albums of recent times, which if there is any justice should elevate him to the very forefront of the current crop of confessional singer-songwriters and sit high in all the end of year top ten lists.