With the kind of laconic detail and precision normally reserved for a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright, the young songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen serves up a classic.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
If nothing else, Walter Martin deserves accolades – and maybe a Grammy nomination – for rhyming “Philippe de Montebello,” former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with “unsuspecting fellow” in his new solo album’s opening song, “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous.”
A key track on the recently released Arts + Leisure, it’s a wry, autobiographical song that paints the young Martin – now a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with indie-rock band The Walkmen – as a merry prankster in his youth, working at the Met’s switchboard and transferring calls to its director to his sleepy roommate at home.
Yet the song is more sweet – bittersweet, actually – than funny. Martin’s reflective, straining and understated voice, which sometimes leaps up an octave at a line’s end as if still changing or breaks into a whistle, carries a sense of melancholy. That touch of sadness or loneliness gives this quirkily sincere album with its likably subdued songs a deceptive depth.
It’s primarily about Martin’s memories of how he became interested in visual art, but it’s also an examination of his youth.
To continue with “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich & Famous” a minute, it’s a marvelous song that keeps unassumingly peeling off insights. Martin recalls working at the information desk of The Cloisters museum when Billy Joel walks in:
“I take a long long look at him.
A dignified old music man.
And that’s when I devised my plan.”
That’s a striking image – you can see Joel visiting a New York museum in a free moment, perhaps seeking commanding artistic inspiration, and commanding respect not by demanding it but because of what he’s accomplished. You don’t even have to like Joel’s work to be moved by line.
The “plan” Martin refers to was to become a New York rocker like Joel. He closes the song by describing that as his current job.
“Where the spotlight shines and the people all cheer.
And the pretty girls flock from far and near.
To touch my hand and hear my song.
And buy my t-shirts and sing along.”
Maybe that’s true, but maybe there’s also some self-deprecating irony there, as well in the song’s title. But not in the final line, where he refers to another job he once had: “Goddam this sure beats mowing lawns.” No doubt.
Much of the rest of the album is almost as good, as the well-traveled Martin reflects on first seeing such artworks as “Calder’s Circus,” the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow (“Charles Rennie Mackintosh”), the David in Florence and Sistine Chapel in the Vatican (“Michelangelo”), and visiting “Amsterdam” with his father.
He’s nicely in touch, without being sentimental, about how art was experienced by him as a youth whose parents take him to a museum. In “Watson and the Shark,” about how as a kid he loved John Singleton Copley’s thrilling, terrifying 1778 painting of a shark attack near Havana, he can precisely, analytically (and wittily) recall – in a mid-song spoken-word passage – why other art at the National Gallery bored him:
“Portraits of old people, blurry water lilies, landscapes of places that looked boring, and interior scenes that said nothing.”
(A child’s view of art history, however, does have its limits. One hopes by now his thoughts on Monet have changed.)
The arrangements provided throughout the record by his accompanists vary – there’s a touch of country (“Old as Hell”), reggae (“The Tourist”) and polite singer-song rock. A couple do veer into a thin slightness, however, like “Down by the Singing Sea.”
Because Martin earlier released a children’s album, We’re All Young Together, with a childlike point of view and a musical simplicity, it’s tempting to compare him to Jonathan Richman in his “Ice Cream Man” period.
But Martin isn’t trying to be an adult naïf or an outsider musician. His writing has the kind of laconic detail and precision of a Paul Simon or Loudon Wainwright. He might be on his way to someday becoming a “dignified old music man.”
Photo Credit: Sebastian Kim