Before We Go To Paradise
published: 18 /
Largely effective solo debut album from English musician Phil Martin, who has adapted several classic poems and set them to music
The problem with making an album of poetry set to music is that poems are, well, poems. They’re not meant to be set to music. Otherwise they’d already be songs. It’s certainly possible to read some song lyrics as poetry but the conversion the other way is considerably more fraught.
That said, Phil Martin’s album, ‘Before We Go To Paradise’, which largely consists of poems set to music, succeeds in part, and in some surprising ways. Martin’s background is in folk and folk-rock, and accordingly the arrangements are largely based around light-touch guitars with the odd keyboard and a saxophone (with everything bar the sax played by Martin).
'Before We Go To Paradise' contains nine ‘proper’ songs and a coda, of which six are pieces of ‘classic’ poetry and one is a reworking of a pop standard. It begins with the poem from which the collection takes its name, GK Chesterton’s wonderful, elegiac meditation on British life and British death, 'The Rolling English Road'.
When we read poems to ourselves, or out loud, they take on rhythms of their own making, and ours, and so like Steven Spielberg making a film of a 'Tintin' book, Phil Martin has had to tread carefully in order to not spoil the mental imagery (or in this case mental rhythm) we’ve already built up.
Martin’s ‘Rolling English Road’ felt clunky and forced. Although it’s flowing and even sensual in rhythm, it’s also a little too military in its timekeeping, and so the end result seemed to be little more than it would have been had he simply read the poem over a beat
Pastiche and parody are also tricky things to navigate in music, and it’s a credit to Martin’s ability that ‘Rainy Night in Brentford’ comes across as neither. It is of course based on Tony Joe White’s ‘Rainy Night in Georgia’, transposed to west London. This version is heartfelt, well put-together and really rather charming, especially the lines about his local football club: “I hear a sudden roar/I hope to God that Brentford scored/In the floodlights’ glow/When Griffin Park is turning out/It’ll be like Mardi Gras/on Brook Road South/with people I know.”
‘Open Mic’, which follows, is the better of the three original compositions (lyrics-wise, at least; all the music is written by Martin apart from ‘Rainy Night…’). The later 'Careless Love', a paean to cycling, is a little too earnest, but ‘Open Mic’, sung from the persona of a struggling performer (“You can come on after me when I’m gone”), really shows off Martin’s lyrical gift, as does the closing 'Coda'.
The poetic tracks that work best are the ones in which Martin goes for a light touch, musically – particularly, ‘Shall I Compare Thee’, based of course on Shakespeare’s 'Sonnet 18', and ‘Tyger, Tyger’, after William Blake. The take on Coleridge’s 'Kubla Khan; again comes across a little forced, but the pick of the whole album is a song called ‘Margaret Are You Grieving?’ which is based on 'Spring and Fall' by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and is a beautiful, mourning contemplation of the role that change plays in our lives.
‘Before We Go To Paradise’ is an achievement, displaying Phil Martin’s talents as a lyricist, composer, musician, singer and even artist. The fact that each one of the tracks has at least a certain charm and easy listenability makes this a remarkable album. If some of the arrangements fall flat, there’s plenty on this record to recommend it.
Rolling English Road
Rainy Night in Brentford
Shall I Compare Thee
Margaret Are You Grieving
Kubla Khan / Coda