“A theme running through my work is not fitting in,” says Martin Carr. “Whether it was at school, work, in a band and even now, a 46-year-old with two small children – I always feel slightly alienated from the process. I think everybody knows what’s going on except me.”
Welcome to the human condition. We’re all a bit lost inside, trying to put on a brave face and front out through the days, doing whatever it takes to make sense of the mind and body’s tangled lines of communication. Martin Carr does it with music; has been for 25 years now, via a string of acclaimed records with The Boo Radleys, then his bravecaptain alias, and latterly under his own name. Hearing his new album, The Breaks, you’re bound to think he’s never done it any better than this, right here and now.
The Breaks was recorded in January 2014, but most of its songs were written three or four years previously. Having self-released his previous album, Ye Gods And Little Fishes, Martin recorded some demos and sent them “far and wide”. People seemed to like the songs but no one was offering to release them, and after a while Martin gave up and began working on different songs. Then, at the end of 2013, he got an email from Tapete, an independent record company based in Hamburg. “They said they were looking for Martin Carr,” he says. “I was carrying it to my spam box when a thought struck me: ‘Hang on, I’M Martin Carr, maybe the Martin Carr they’re after!’ So I wrote back to them and they wrote back to me. I sent them the demos and they loved them. They sent me a big box of records and flew me over to Hamburg and got me drunk – and that was that.”
Tapete’s roster is large and varied: lots of local bands, but also some from the US, Scandinavia and Austria, plus, in Lloyd Cole and Bill Pritchard, a couple of hugely accomplished UK artists with deep history and maverick tendencies. Martin Carr fits that bill perfectly: a songwriter whose work is pop but not necessarily populist, and whose trajectory reveals an ambivalent relationship with conventional sensibilities. Indeed, it’s an issue he grapples with on one of The Breaks’ keynote songs: “Here I am swimming in the mainstream/I tell my friends I subvert it from within… I tell myself I’m happy as I am.”
The song – Mainstream, of course – features rapturous female harmony vocals and is a fuzzy-headed lachrymose wallow in the finest tradition of Harry Nilsson or Jeff Lynne, but with a downhome intimacy that makes Martin’s voice feel like a confessional echo of the self-doubts we all experience. Such is the hallmark of a great songwriter – making the personal feel universal – and it’s a trick Carr pulls repeatedly over the album’s 10-track stretch. On Sometimes It Pours, when he sings “Oh my little ones/In from the cold/Jump into my arms/Stop me getting old”, there’s not a parent in the world who won’t understand.
“I wrote the songs when I was spending most of my days dealing with babies and young children,” he says. “The period that seems to last forever and you start to wonder of things will ever be normal again, or less normal anyway. Stifled, the hours move like mountains, the days speed like bullets.”
Mainstream doubts and fears again. Yet with the heady, paraffin-warmth of his melodies and these songs’ joyous pheromone rushes, you’ll believe that Carr could deliver the last rites and give the recipient cause to smile. The Breaks has so many ascension moments: the bravura Isaac Hayes/Stax homage in opener Santa Fe Skyway, the pumping organ of St Peter In Chains, the reserves of lyrical chutzpah demonstrated amid I Don’t’ Think I’ll Make It wherein Carr rhymes “heart” with “Descartes”. The songs are performed with equal amounts attitude, soul and empathy by Carr and a group of musicians assembled specifically for the sessions: the rhythm section features Andy Fung on drums and Corin Ashley on bass, while the piano and organ are courtesy of BAFTA award-winning composer John Rae. The latter’s presence was pure kismet: he was studio manager at Cardiff’s soon-to-be-demolished ITV buildings where the sessions took place. “The studio I made my last album in was also torn down after I’d finished,” notes Martin.
A wry stoicism in the face of life’s injustice is a lyrical sub-plot throughout the record: be it the precise character assassination of Senseless Apprentice (“Your greedy eyes and your mouth for rent/Your grabbing hands and your desperate scent”) or the closing title track’s assertion: “And if the breaks don’t come/We’ll just get by without them.” Throughout it all, whether accompanied by his distaff siren chorus – gorgeously so on No Money In My Pocket – or fronting up alone, Carr has never sung his own songs better than he does here. It’s a voice that both grounds and elevates The Breaks. Martin Carr is doing more than just getting by – he’s just made his best album.
“The weird thing is,” he says, “despite all this angst it’s the most immediate and accessible record I’ve made in a while. I love pop music and find it liberating. It fills me with joy.”