Jeffrey Martin immersed himself in the literature of some great American storytellers and in the stories of working people and families when he was teaching in a small town in rural Oregon. The hardscrabble, stripped-down literature of Raymond Carver, Annie Proulx, John Steinbeck and the like blended with the personal stories of his students and their families. Now a full-time singer and songwriter based in Portland, he’s put it down in a dozen songs on this album, a remarkable testament to the songwriting craft.
One of the best examples of this personalized song-making is called “Sad Blue Eyes,” in which a young man from a very broken family thinks he can save the even more broken young woman who owns those eyes. Martin sings the song in his craggy baritone, accompanied only by his strummed electric guitar and some ambient keyboard whispers. “When they’re naked at night, she whispers to him, I know we can make it all right. But the damage moves in like a ghost from within and a storm grows behind her sad blue eyes …” he intones in the final verse.
That bit of sadness leads right into another, “October Dark,” in which a woman comes home after being in prison for 15 years, to try and rebuild a relationship with her daughter. We see the story through both mother’s and daughter’s eyes, and in the end we see a glimmer of hope, especially in the daughter’s thoughts: “Fifteen years of being angry in the dark disappear with the beating of her heart; holding on to how you’ve been wronged leaves no room for moving on…”
One Go Around isn’t unremitting sadness, fortunately. On “Time Away” a man who’s living away from home because of his job decides to go home. One called “Thrift Store Dress” may be the most autobiographical. It’s about how hard it is to stay connected even when you’re together, if your time is spent ” … playing songs for strangers in towns that aren’t ours.” A bit somber, yes, but hopeful: “Still I’m thankful in my wandering that I’m wandering with you.” He further explores domestic bliss in “Golden Thread,” backed by the ethereal harmonies of Anna Tivel and the occasional dramatic swoop of a slide guitar.
This album has one quietly dramatic song after another, from the opener “Poor Man” in which hard work leads only to more of the same and can be wiped out by a car that won’t start or a job that goes away; to the closer, the title song in which he ponders the big questions like the meaning of life and death. And speaking of death, what is a lover of American literature supposed to think and feel about William Burroughs, the beat writer who killed his wife while showing off with a loaded gun during a drunken party? “Baby sit still and close your eyes,” Martin sings on “Billy Burroughs,” which may have been the last words Joan Vollmer heard as Burroughs tried to play William Tell and instead shot her in the head. Martin doesn’t give any answers but his starkly written lines let the listeners feel what they feel.
Martin goes all Dylan/Guthrie on a long political song called “What We’re Marching Toward.” Fingerpicked guitar and a feral blast of harmonica between the verses, which explore the follies of our current situation. Verses like: “If the truth can be beaten and tied to a chair and made to say whatever we want, then the words that we serve are nothing but ours and our god is not god after all.”
There’s nothing very pretty about this record. Jeffrey Martin isn’t the gussied-up product of Nashville or New York or L.A., his songs are poetic but stark, his voice isn’t sweetly modulated or auto-tuned, and the arrangements and production purposely have a do-it-yourself feel. It’s all as real as the hard roads traveled by the people in his songs. If we do just get one go-around like Martin says, then time spent with music like this is time well spent.
(Fluff & Gravy, 2017)