For the second release from his post-Pela project, Thieving Irons, Nate Martinez explained his inspiration in a statement on his website. The title, Behold, This Dreamer!, he writes, came from a chance encounter in a bookshop, when he came across Walter de la Mare’s anthology of the same name. Though Martinez claims not to have read the book (to preserve its mystery), the title was enough to gel a trend of thought that he was exploring in his songs: dreams, ghosts, and time. (De la Mare took the title from Genesis: when Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him, they refer to the favorite son with this envious dismissal of his uniqueness). Assuming Martinez is fashioning himself as the dreamer of the title as well, then he has made a complimentary album that is lush and atmospheric, but like a dream, seems timeless and formless.
Behold, This Dreamer! sounds like an adult album — or maybe more accurately, a consciously grownup album. The sophisticated arrangements aim for maturity. Yet the lyrics also seem replete with that indie nostalgia for childhood innocence that so often mars music. Martinez’s words, which are available on his website, take the perspective of a loner wandering through city streets and empty country roads, sitting on a shoreline, reflecting on time gone by, trying to wrench some wisdom from passing life. Though Martinez often sings about a “we,” that seems to be a haunted couple, or more likely that nostalgic yearning for a lost childhood friend. Martinez sees this album as the consolidation of his own voice, literally. He has typically concentrated on the guitar, but here feels most comfortable with his singing. His voice is soft and certain with a conscious clarity. He takes on the role of a storyteller, whispering songs in your ear, tripping on the cadences of his lyrics rather than fitting them to his music.
In its crystalline production, the album calls to mind ’80s adult contemporary solo work of men like Sting, Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins — in the soft place where you can imagine these different sounds converging. Martinez seems to be out to prove, like those who came before him, that he is serious, that he knows something, and that he can make it all sound really good. Of course Martinez isn’t alone in revisiting the ’80s attempts by white Brits and Americans to incorporate “world beat” into their no long quite rock music. But unlike, say, Animal Collective, Martinez doesn’t play with strange noises or electronic gadgets. Instead, the album is quite subdued, all serene and untroubled. The dominant note might be restraint. Though each song does have a hook, melodically and lyrically, the album has a slow burn. It creates a cushiony atmosphere that is welcoming, a mellow pillow for you to lay your head on, while it slowly worms its way in, to become an album that seemed to always exist.
Given this penchant for expansive atmosphere, Thieving Irons might be more similar in scope to a band like the War on Drugs, another project based around a single songwriter that defuses the composition of the pop song into something more ambient and elusive. Like Adam Granduciel from that band, Martinez phrases his lyrics trippingly, swallowing what sounds like full paragraphs in single lines, a style that goes back to Springsteen’s punchy take on Dylan. But at the same time that Martinez wants to pack so many thoughts into his songs, the album itself begins to lull. The sounds blur. You begin to feel like you’re hanging out with a self-righteous friend who just wants to talk about himself. After the album opener, “End of September”, which has a driving bass line that makes you feel like you’re going somewhere, it’s not until the eighth track, “Poison”, an ’80s bar band rocker, that any necessary energy shows itself. There is a sense of relief as Martinez sings “I got poison in my head” over and over against a droning synth and quickly strummed guitar. His vocals, though still calm, seem to want to growl, with an edge of fuzz on them.
One of the album highlights of overly lucid stabs at wisdom is “Mile Long Minutes”, a wistful track that declares “these are the best of times” over sparsely played piano lines. The incredibly catchy chorus also speaks to the element of fussiness that pervades this album: “Well I just want to be here now / Wasting all the mile long minutes / Waiting for the perfect song to start the perfect night.” The idea of the perfect song seems to be inflected now with the privilege of the digital culture that has all the songs one could wish for instantly ready-to-hand. Now we can indulge our aesthetic views of life by compiling the perfect soundtrack or playlist for each thing we do. But of course you have to search for the song before you can do anything, so that the search overtakes the life. The idea of a perfect song is an attempt to create the right mood, and that is what this album evidently does. Only that mood becomes so serious, thoughtful, and brooding, that by the end it gets to be too much. And nothing gets done. It’s not so much about a perfect song, but an album that stretches that perfect mood for 12 songs, to nearly an hour of unvaried “perfectness” that no longer seems necessary.