Songwriters like Martin X. Petz are increasingly rare in our divisive, cynical modern world. He wants to encourage some sort of uplift in his audience’s lives, but it’s never viewed through rose-colored glasses or arrived at without some effort. His songs alternate between well-worded pragmatism and an inherent optimism born of faith and spiritual strength. The songs on Broken Man don’t emphasize those latter elements as strongly as Petz has on earlier releases, but he’s simply learned how to subsume those parts of his life much more cleanly into his art. His musical abilities are low-key in asserting themselves but, after multiple and careful hearings, his audience will hear the nuance and creativity that he’s poured into the album’s nine songs.
The opening song and title cut, “Broken Man”, begins life with an intense, pensive bass line and develops from there. It’s a little more clipped and superficially simple than many Petz’s tracks, eschewing melodic strength in favor of a stronger theatrical sense, but these decisions never cheapen the effort involved or final result. In the hands of more amateurish songwriters, “Broken Man” could have ended up sounding overwrought, but Petz thankfully avoids those traps. :Noble Blues” is another song that could have veered off into unpleasantness, but Petz’s talent enables him to write convincingly about middle class struggles without ever politicizing the content. His focus remains people, throughout, and the songs gain much as a result.
The middle half of the album moves Petz from the heartland rock sound he conjured at the beginning in favor of the more intimate, even folky approach, that’s long defined his style. His songwriting has opened up in recent years, however, as “Castaway” amply shows. Few songwriters can compose material that is so nuanced it touches on a number of often thorny issues for listeners, like faith and personal perseverance, without ever eliciting their disapproval. “Count” does the same thing. This is a song with a lesson, but he couches that lesson in an exemplary musical package, understated and tasteful, while delivering a vocal that gently imposes itself on the listener rather than getting in their figurative faces.
“Run Ride Leave” is one of the album’s most interesting songs. It reveals a side to Petz’s songwriting that none of the other tracks do – the shadow of regret hangs over the song, but not so heavily that it is a listening chore. “They Say (You’ll Know)” is Broken Man’s melodic highpoint. This is a tightly written, compact example of his pop songwriting talents, but the effect it has on the listener isn’t the result of short cuts. Instead, he weaves an appealing spell thanks to the interplay between his vocals and his always strong guitar work. Martin X. Petz’s latest album Broken Man shows considerable growth and a reaffirmation of strengths that have been hallmarks of every release bearing his name. Few writers or vocalists today exhibit such a strong connection to their material or such a concern for depicting the realities of modern life.