Josh Martin - Notes From The American Rat Race (Album Review)

The "American Dream" has long promised a life of freedom and financial prosperity to those willing to work for it. Coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931, the term is now used ironically to point out the injustices and despair that come when faced with the cold reality of a disenfranchised society divided by a left/right paradigm and the environmental consequences of unfettered capitalism that may have turned the American dream into a global nightmare. However, at least we can still sing about it. Having been raised in a yurt by "ex-hippie survivalists" seems to have imbued psych-folker Josh Martin with an outsider perspective and knack for writing earthy songs. The Coloradan artist, formerly a member of the band "We Will Be Lions", ruminates on an American life full of artistry, fatherhood, and politics in his recent full-length Notes From The American Rat Race

The opening track, "Bask In The Riddle", is a contained and romantic number about one of the mysteries of the human condition; the readiness to accept the nonsense of love and all the ugly and beautiful things that come from its necessary sacrifices ("I stand before you, a servant, in a game of give and take.”). Though the track is predominantly a standard country folk tune, it is coloured with distant synths and psychedelic flourishes as Martin's deep yarns are delivered with a self-aware sarcasm that never compromises the sincerity of the heartfelt lyrics. While Martin is an entertaining vocalist and effortlessly profound lyricist, the instrumental tracks speak the loudest. "Bonzai Garden" is a highly sensual and spacious ambient track full of beauty and escapism, with delicate piano, woodwinds and twinkling guitars. Likewise, the primitive acoustic folk ragas of "Fairytale" demonstrate his prowess with a six-string, and "Pergola" utilises heavily-reverbed electric guitar licks with indiscernible field recordings and heavenly atmospherics. Cuts like this showcase Martin's artistic proclivities. There's little interest in scoring Instagram-worthy hits. Instead, he is concerned with investigating his sonic palette, which encompasses both extremes of psych-folk; the accessible and the obscure.  

The three solid instrumental tracks on the collection marry with Americana-leaning folk traditions for songs with harmonic richness and lyrical depth, like "All My Fantasies" or "Change Will Come", a call to civic responsibility and a rosy-eyed belief in a better future. The harmonies and sweet melodies carry Martin's aptitude for clever ABAB rhyming schemes ("Fighting all our silly wars, building walls and settling scores"). Yet though these songs are noble and well-intentioned, there's no hiding their self-righteousness, a pitfall for any folk singer who deals in sincere observations of the world and what's wrong with it. Thankfully, such is not the case in the light-hearted and Beatlesque "Seeds", a timeless glorification of love, or "Paralyzed by Music", a mystical tune where Martin scatters rising keys and trickling guitars around subtle percussion and a deadpan delivery akin to late-career Scott Walker but with the modern sensibilities of psych-folk contemporary and ostensible influence Devendra Banhart.   

Martin injects humour into his purist world philosophy, like in the irreverent "Dreams and Visions" ("I grow up like a herbal garden, I'm a perverted holy man"). The verbosity of this track and others means Martin often straddles the fine line between singer and spoken word poet with mixed results, sometimes landing on Cohen-like moments and others blunting the sharpness of the message, operating less on his music's visceral capabilities and preferring to make the songs tools for mental stimulation. Nevertheless, Martin finds a sweet balance between the musical and the heady on album highlight "The Right One And The Wrong One", a gentle and patient song with a repeating melody and considered vocal deliveries. Imaginative and visual words are used to create a truly absorbing, entertaining, and memorable track of emotional profundity.   

Martin is comfortable displaying his more egocentric tendencies without hesitance, simultaneously making the songs relatable and alien. However, taken as a whole, the album is genuine notes from the American rat race, as its title suggests. The pieces read like the diary entries of a travelling bohemian lost in a world of suits, and touch on themes of fatherhood in a politically turbulent world, the search for an earthly existence in a late-capitalistic technological society, and good old-fashioned love. 

Most notably, Notes From The American Rat Race feels like spying on an artist revealing truths about themself they were oblivious to before picking up their guitar and singing them out. This gives the album its candid and strangely voyeuristic edge, elevating it from the humdrum often associated with indie folk towards a dreamy, sometimes haughty, statement from an artist who, unlike many of their peers, really does have something to say.