Walter Martin's solo debut, We're All Young Together, was an album for kids that grown-ups could love, but his follow-up, Arts & Leisure, takes that young-at-heart whimsy in directions only adults will appreciate fully. Equal parts memoir and meditations on art and mortality, these thoughtful, downright cozy songs come alive with close listening. Martin's lyrics are as full of vivid detail and imagery as the artwork that inspired him; he puts his own wry imprint on his subjects, whether marveling at Michelangelo's inspiration ("I wonder how I can be more like him/Where I see a cracked ceiling, he sees the birth of man") or recounting the time Billy Joel walked into the museum he worked at on "Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous." Martin's touch may be even lighter on this album than it was on We're All Young Together. He never gets too didactic with the facts and references he puts in these songs; instead, Arts & Leisure's cultivated warmth celebrates the ways life and art go hand in hand. The sunny "Down by the Singing Sea" takes inspiration from the beach where Robert Rauschenberg lived without mentioning the artist by name. On "Watson and the Shark," Martin describes most children's reaction to fine art in refreshingly down-to-earth terms: "Portraits of old people, blurry water lilies, landscapes of places that looked boring, and interior scenes that said nothing to me." Here and throughout the album, the joy Martin finds in art is palpable, and contagious; the same playful spirit that moved Alexander Calder to build and travel to Paris with a miniature circus ("life looks good in wire, cloth and wood") animates these songs. However, Arts & Leisure is also more poignant than We're All Young Together, with the wry introspection of Martin's work with the Walkmen emerging later in the album. Songs such as "Amsterdam" and "Charles Rennie Mackintosh" -- where a trip to Scotland is warmed by cups of tea and squeaking chairs -- recall that band's flair for songs about travel, while Martin's ruminations on faith ("In a Gothic Church") and aging ("Old as Hell") sound and feel even more genuine than the similar territory the Walkmen covered. Arts & Leisure is so easygoing that it's easy to underestimate, but it reveals Martin as a first-rate storyteller who captures the joys of new sights and new ways of thinking in songs full of life and humor.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares