As we talk about his new project Army of Bones, Martin Smith is leaning forward keenly. “Not that it’s about writing songs about doom and gloom, but I think I really need to bring that [side of things] to people. I need to bring the fact that I’ve been married for 22 years and it’s been amazing, but I need to write songs about how that’s been, because it’s not all a great movie is it.”
Later, as Smith and his spellbinding band electrify a criminally under-populated Asylum2 in Birmingham, his keening promise “I’m gonna love you like I know I should love you but we’re tearing apart” on the alternately pulsing and mournful Break Away feels especially poignant. Elsewhere, Say You Do and The Day the Fire Went Out continue the theme of doubts, questions and darkness. Whatever this new project is, one thing’s for certain, we’re certainly not delirious anymore, and if we’re on God’s great dance floor, we’ve found the corner of it where people who don’t feel much like dancing are sitting. It’s the part where I can usually be found, incidentally.
So, there’s something of a sense of the beauty being found in the grey, in the uncertainty of it all. Whereas once his lyrics were raised as banners for a generation to march under (or at least some of that generation), the rallying cry, prophetic some might call it, of this moment in his career is one that begs us to press more deeply into what it means to be human in the midst of the joys and sorrows of life.
As Smith says: “I think that Army of Bones for me represents, first and foremost, speaking to my own bones and going ‘right, come on, you’ve got some music to make and some things to say.’ It feels like the challenge, the opportunity that Martin Smith has given himself in this season is to use even the smallest bit of breath given to those bones to tell an honest, truthful story, shot through with integrity.”
There’s certainly a seriousness, a heaviness even, in the way he answers my questions (I guess I could have scared him) and in the songs that Army of Bones present. While this isn’t new to his writing, the fact that it is front and centre now is new, I think. As he says: “I don’t think it’s fair to put things on a screen on a Sunday morning that are, necessarily, ya know, personal anguish, but we do need songs like that that reflect those emotions.” How many of us who emerged fresh-faced on to the D:Tour in the 1990s can identify with being in a place like this today? This is a place where faith isn’t lost, but it is challenged and changed, moulded and shaped by the wounds of life, into something which is rooted in its foundations and built to last.
Here is a man who has been a hero, a role model to many, willing to honestly live in the public eye, balancing the heart of a worshipper and as a questioning performer, as he and his band combine duties such as Army of Bones with leading people in worship all around the country, simultaneously with feet, as it were in both camps. As Martin says, “this has never been done before, it’s exciting!”
And that story of challenge and transformation is still being written. As I talk to Martin, I have the same sense that I’ve often had about him from a distance. Here is a contemporary prophet, seeking ever more deeply to find and make known the voice of the heartbeat within. “I just have a feeling that we’re not in the last chapter yet of whatever that book (of his story) is… strangely so I find myself back in this place of, here we go, you know, not knowing or having a plan. But do I believe that God can use music? Yeah totally.” A lot of us feel the same but we’re often not brave enough to articulate it.
Martin’s vision is clear:
“We’re gonna play Glastonbury mainstage. That’s what I see in my mind and at that point it’ll be people singing along to songs that, somehow you have hope that music can bring people alive. That would be my dream really.”
And what of the history makers? Martin spoke of his gratitude for the many of us who came out year after year to support his former band, buying the albums and singing the songs in church. “Thank you, thank you for giving me an amazing life.” That amazing life continues to take him down roads less travelled by Christian musicians. Armed with the best songs he’s ever written and the ringing call of the dry bones coming to life with the breath of God (Ezekiel 37) “which could be a movie in itself”, he says, propelling him on, it’s a vision which may very well come to pass. We may well be hearing him on the radio again. Are we okay with that?