In Brief: Martel joyfully embraces his claim to fame as a Freddie Mercury doppelganger on this album, while also asserting his own identity apart from it. In doing so, he gets to fully indulge his more theatrical tendencies, and he comes up with a solid collection of power pop and riff-heavy rock songs that remind me of what his old band Downhere might have sounded like, if only they had let loose a little more often.
Marc Martel is one of those musicians whose career seems like the equivalent of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde. Not in the sense that he’s got a ferocious dark side on display, but more in the sense that he’s made a name for himself with two very different audiences. The first of those audiences would be Christian music fans, who knew him as the co-frontman of Canadian Christian rock band Downhere. I wouldn’t say they were ever an A-list band in the CCM world, but they did well enough for themselves with their sorta-folksy pop rock sound between their debut in the early 2000s and their amicable split at the end of 2012. The second – and quite likely the larger – of those two audiences would be fans of Queen, whose heads were turned when Martel auditioned to joined the Queen Extravaganza Tour by posting a cover of the band’s song “Somebody to Love” on YouTube that quickly went viral. I don’t mean to imply that there isn’t a good deal of crossover between those two audiences. Obviously there must have been, because folks had pointed out Martel’s uncanny vocal and visual similarity to the late Freddie Mercury back in his Downhere days. But when you take the generally mild-mannered limitations imposed on Christian rockers by an industry that doesn’t tend to respond well to flamboyancy, and the decidedly more edgy and theatrical approach Queen was known for, it’s not difficult to imagine how there might be some tension there. (Case in point: Kevin Max.)
Now I can’t say that I personally have a ton of experience with Queen’s music. I know a few of their big ones, and I generally appreciate the bombastic twists and turns in the melodies and structures of those songs. I’ve become a fan of a few modern bands who proudly wear the influence on their sleeve (most notably Muse) and I think there’s a part of me that’s always admired a rock musician willing to go all-out crazy-pants with an over-the-top performance even if it meant things might get a bit silly. I never would have pegged Downhere as being likely to come anywhere near this territory, since their approach was generally more reverent and cerebral. But looking back at their catalogue (especially their first three albums, before they drifted far enough into the “adult contemporary” category that I lost interest), I can hear Martel’s inner animal just yearning to break free on songs like So Much for Substitutes‘ ode to depression “Feels Like Winter” and Wide-Eyed and Mystified‘s grand finale, “I Miss You Here”. That same spirit, minus the need to cram a little sermon into each song, gives his solo debut Impersonator its entire reason for being, resulting in songs that generally don’t stray too far from the loud-and-proud power pop approach he seems to love so much, but that do occasionally take interesting turns into harder or more theatrical rock territory.
The songwriting here generally isn’t preachy, but it’s personal enough to get the point across that, catchy as it is, it’s more a product of artistry than industry. Martel has great fun here, letting you know all about who he is and how he falls short of who he wants to be. And his backing band (which I think pulls together friends from both phases of his career, though I don’t have the credits handy) tends to approach his songs with more joy and energy than you’d generally expect from day players supporting a solo album. It just sounds like everyone had a blast making the thing. Perhaps it occasionally veers into the same “adult contemporary” territory that kind of strikes me as pandering to the old fanbase, but even then, I feel like things are more anthemic and full-bodied than what might go down easy on your average Christian radio station.
The bottom line is that you shouldn’t come into this expecting it to rival your favorite classic Queen album, nor should you expect humdrum CCM. I honestly wouldn’t even categorize it as “Christian rock” aside from an occasional hint at Martel’s faith, which is not to say that he’s trying to cover it up in any way; he just tends to write about human struggles that are common to more people than just those that share one specific system of beliefs. I don’t think anything here would offend his old CCM fans, aside from maybe one song that he seems to have written to sort of poke fun at himself and his more “sheltered” origins. I know where he’s coming from on that one, and I think he walks that fine line with aplomb.
1. Say the Word
The album opener is a pretty good litmus test for how much you’ll like the rest of the record. The pounding drums and catchy electric guitar riffs are comfortable pop/rock staples, but they’re hard-driving enough to not land in the middle of the road. Martel gets plenty of chance to flex his vocal muscles here, particularly in a chorus which demonstrates his basement-to-rafters range. “Just say the word, and my love will follow”, goes the song’s main hook, and it comes across as a bit of a mission statement, a reason why his unique gifts and passions made it impossible to resist the wild and weird journey that this whole Queen thing took him on. Even if you know nothing about the guy, you can tell from his little vocal quirks and how much fun he’s having here that the man is a born entertainer.
2. Dead Ringer
A faster, meaner guitar riff kicks this song into high gear right away – for some reason I imagine a bunch of dudes riding dirt bikes when I hear this one. He addresses the whole doppelganger issue head-on here, playfully shrugging it off by saying that’s the face and the voice they gave him when he was born, and while he might have a great time playing a role, he’s still got to be himself at the end of the day. (I’ll admit it, now I’m thinking of all those times I criticized Matt Bellamy for sounding like Thom Yorke, and I’m kind of cringing at my own ignorance.) This one wins me over for the rapid-fire vocal delivery and the sheer rock factor of it. There’s a guitar solo here that isn’t overly lengthy or flashy, but it’s just edgy enough to put the final nail in the coffin of what I my previous expectations of the Downhere guy.
Martel might not win any points for using magnetism and astronomical metaphors to explain the love that keeps himself and his wife together, but stylistically he’s more than slick enough to pull it off and keep a smile on my face in the process. This one’s an unapologetic power ballad, though it’s fast-paced enough at first to make you think it’s just another bouncy pop song. Another pounding drum beat and a solid vocal hook really help it to stand out, but it’s the sudden downshift when it hits the chorus that really sells it. Without missing a beat, suddenly it’s an epic anthem in the vein of Switchfoot‘s “I Dare You to Move” (it’s probably the steady acoustic guitar strumming along to those BIG chord changes that brings them to mind), and while I’ve more than had my fill of bands trying to sound like Switchfoot at their peak of popularity (the actual Switchfoot included), sometimes the most obvious pop music tropes work well simply because they make everything sound awesome. This is one of those times.
The next two songs are where I think this record veers into sheer genius territory, though for some that might also mean things get a little too campy for their tastes. Case in point: using a chugging, pop-metal guitar riff to make a point about marital fidelity. That sounds pretty corny on paper, but Martel’s voice rides the highs and lows and little falsetto freakouts of this song with so much authority that I’m really willing to believe he’s a man on the brink of insanity, with only his wife to hold him back from the myriad of ego-boosting and hedonistic temptations that fame can bring along with it. Any other singer might sound like a total square, trying to sell the virtues of having one’s proverbial hands tied such an aggressive and over-the-top song, but I think it puts a humorous twist on the tired old “ball & chain” metaphor. It might not be rock & roll, and it might not seem sexy to most of the world, but it’s what keeps the guy centered, and I love that he approaches it from a place of knowing his own weaknesses, rather than from a place of talking down to others.
Martel might have just come up with one of the best rock singles of the last five years with this one. It’s just about everything I could ask for in that category – a larger-than-life syncopated rhythm that rolls right over everything in its path, downright wicked guitar riffs that are 100% unashamed of throwing us back to the days when hair was long and pants were way too tight, and a massively singable chorus that somehow manages to be pop without diluting the dark, mysterious gravity of the song. This one feels like the more sinister flipside to “Straitjacket”, because whatever he’s fallen head over heels in love with here, he knows it’s killing him and yet he still wants nothing more than to be “chained up in paradise”. It’s a love-hate relationship that might raise some eyebrows from those seeking a clearer lyrical message, but I love it when music can just live in that uneasy tension and let you figure out on your own what, if anything, it’s condoning or condemning. Just when I thought this one couldn’t get any better, it takes a very sudden swerve midway through, stripping the whole thing down to piano and then building it back up again, reworking its rough-and-tumble rhythm into straight-up, stadium-rousing, rock opera anthem territory, which makes room for a stratospheric guitar solo to close out the song, all without changing the basic melody and structure of a chorus that was too good not to come back around to it. It’s really hard to pull off that sort of a stylistic change mid-song when what you started off with was so good that I didn’t want you to take it away prematurely. But it ends up being a fitting tribute to a band that knew a thing or two about how to change up the mood or even the genre of a song midway through and turn something that was already amazing into something truly epic in the process.
It’s really, really hard for me to come back down to Earth after the ridiculous heights those last two songs reached. I’m just not ready to go into sensitive, piano ballad mode. Fortunately Martel saves one of his more compelling lyrics for this one, describing a fight in which two people “can’t take our eyes off each other’s sins”, and pleading for some sort of a peaceful resolution even though it means both of them will have to back down on their desire to be “right”. He shows a little more restraint here than usual, though there’s still plenty of room for the occasional vocal vamp or for the background vocals to get worked up to a near-religious fervor. Even at his most minimal, the hallmarks of power pop will still come into play if you give the song time to unfold, and I love him for that.
7. Ringo Starr
This is the song I mentioned earlier, where Martel gets to make fun of himself. I like to imagine it’s about all the things someone who’s been around the block several times in the music industry might say to an innocent Christian rocker trying to play with the big boys. Choice lines that you’d never have heard in a Downhere song include “You’ve got your panties all in a bunch about your comfort zone” and my personal favorite “Grow some, you’re gonna need ’em in that leotard!” (Somewhere, a blue-haired lady just fainted.) The most insightful comment comes in the chorus: “You ain’t no Ringo Starr, you’ve got the rhythm but you’ve got no heart.” Talk to most drummers and they’ll tell you that Ringo wasn’t all that good from a technical perspective – he’s remembered because he performed with a personality that can’t be easily emulated even if you can play fast and accurately enough to run circles around the competition. It’s an interesting analogy given that Martel got here by way of Queen and not The Beatles, though the song doesn’t really sound like either band (perhaps because imitating the greats isn’t the point here). It’s one of the jumpiest, bounciest rockers on the project, its muscle-car riffs punctuated by peppy shouts of “Hey, hey hey!”, and pretty much everything about it is instantly lovable. Whoever’s playing the drums here, they’re certainly not trying to imitate Ringo, but they’re doing a hell of a job (just like everyone else involved) making sure we all have a blast listening to it.
8. One Beat From a Heartbreak
Getting steadily beaten down by your choice of career never sounded as much fun as it does in this bouncy song that, for all of its pounding piano chords and jumpy little stabs of guitar and so forth, comes across as a pretty honest depiction of the life of a touring musician. The weariness of being away from home combined with the instability of a touring schedule he’s not used to and a new place to sleep every night have him constantly on the brink, and you can tell he just wants to give up and go home, but he knows there’s a reason he’s called to keep putting in the miles and the hours. His attitude about it is refreshingly upbeat, even if he’s vulnerable enough to say he needs a break from it every now and then.
9. Our Best
I keep confusing this song with OK Go‘s “The One Moment”, because both songs are track 9 on their respective albums, and because they have similar drum patterns and an overall “Live like there’s no tomorrow” sort of sentiment that’s designed to rouse a stadium-sized crowd. Martel’s got a confident chorus here that might be one of the album’s easiest to jump in and sing along with. It doesn’t quite have the same edge as some of the earlier rockers on the album, but it’s a sturdy enough entry in a list of nothing but solid songs thus far.
The final quarter of the album enters an almost imperceptible downhill slide – there’s nothing outright bad here, but these last few songs don’t really live up to the expectations set by the ones we’ve already heard. Putting the title track this late in an album that’s already had so much fun dealing with the identity crisis inherent in a musician achieving fame for looking and sounding like another musician might have been a mistake. Here he approaches the issue in more of a heartfelt, power ballad mode, pointing out that “I could be the reason for your insanity” and “I could never make you happy”, reasoning with the more unpleasable segments of both sides of his fanbase, trying to get them to see him as more than just a specter of a classic rock icon, or a guy who happened to be in a band they used to like. Since he’s sort of beating a dead horse with the topic at this point, I kind of feel like the song needs more than just the slow, drawn-out words of its chorus to help it stand out, or at the very least it should have come earlier in the album, when it would have felt less like an afterthought.
11. The Remake (High Hopes)
The “official” closing track is probably the closest thing to a Downhere song you’ll find on the record, and by that I mean it’s more acoustic and it’s got more of a clear, inspirational message. Unfortunately it runs afoul of that same “mini-sermon disguised as a song” type feeling I got from a lot of Downhere’s mellower material, not because it’s an explicitly religious song (you get the idea that he’s talking about God without naming Him here, which is fine in and of itself), but more because its central metaphor is a bit hackneyed. He explains how he – and by extension, all human beings – will only let God down, but that’s OK, because God’s got high hopes for “the remake”. Maybe there’s something deeper in the lyrics that I’m missing here, but since I tend to think of “remakes” as Hollywood churning out endless regurgitations of once-popular films, this doesn’t seem like a terribly flattering analogy for sin and redemption. It’s a notion that sells short what Martel is trying to do as a solo artist apart from his other endeavors, and it might even sell short the Gospel that he’s very subtly trying to point us to. On the upside… the finger-picked acoustic guitar is nice, I guess?
12. No Telling What We Could Do Next
The album ends with what might be considered a bonus track, in the sense that it doesn’t really sound like an ending but it also doesn’t seem to fit into the record anywhere else. Just a fun little ode to adventure that he wanted to be sure didn’t wind up as an obscure B-side, I guess. The lyrics read like something out of the soundtrack to a movie about gnarly surfers or any kind of extreme sportsmen looking for their next big break, what with their references to “dopamine junkies” and so forth. it’s all a great vehicle for Martel’s powerhouse vocals, and it probably captures the spirit of how he felt embarking on this big, wild adventure that took him far from his musical (and perhaps spiritual) comfort zone. But I keep getting hung up on the drum programming here. The song starts off with this cheesy, bouncy-basketball sort of a noise that brings to mind a high school basketball game more readily than it does anything epically awesome. And it persists throughout the entire freakin’ song, as if the backing band Martel had in-studio wasn’t more than capable enough of delivering a solid performance without the sweetening. I expect that sort of thing from major-label CCM releases, but it’s bafflingly out of place here. The song’s still enjoyable despite that, but I’m glad they didn’t make a habit of stuff like this on the rest of the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Say the Word $1.50
Dead Ringer $1.75
Ringo Starr $2
One Beat From a Heartbreak $1.25
Our Best $1
The Remake (High Hopes) $.50
No Telling What We Could Do Next $.75
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