Despite being critically lauded throughout his first decade and a half in the music industry, John Martyn never REALLY caught on. Admittedly he had a sniff of more widespread popularity when his 1973 offering, Solid Air, was released but its success was fleeting and subsequent albums failed to make the same (less then minimal) commercial impact. And, unlike his good friend Nick Drake (for whom the song Solid Air was written), it appears that, at least for the time being, a posthumous resurgence of interest – Martyn died in 2009 at the tender age of 60 – is yet to gather much momentum. Which is a shame, as Martyn’s music has so much to offer.
Martyn started out writing fairly standard folk tinged acoustic guitar fodder but upon being signed to Chris Blackwell’s predominently reggae based Island Records, he quickly developed his sound into a much meatier beast, experimenting with other styles of music and introducing the Echoplex guitar device (which can be heard to great effect on Solid Air’s noisier offerings). The icing on the cake was Martyn’s voice, strong and smoky, soulful and yet somehow capable of doing enraged and vulnerable simulataneously. By the time Martyn was releasing Solid Air the assurance he had in his own song-writing allowed him to play with style and sound to produce records that, in their own way, provide a kind of folky mirror to the mid 70s experimentation of Cale, Eno or Bowie. Martyn was brimful of confidence and was ready to take (on) the World.
But, of course, it couldn’t last. And somewhat predictably it’s the point at which it all begins to fall apart that I am particularly drawn to. Grace and Danger is as raw a record as any I possess. It documents a time of great upheavel in Martyn’s life; alcoholic since the mid 70s, Martyn and wife Beverley were in the process of getting divorced at the time Grace and Danger was recorded. The pain is palpable, especially on the second side of the record – song titles ‘Hurt in Your Heart’, ‘Baby Please Come Home’, ‘Our Love’ and ‘Lookin’ On’ leave little to the imagination as to the song’s lyrical content and their melancholy arrangements, plaintive melodies and Martyn’s devastatingly beautiful (to my ears anyway) vocals leave the listener in no doubt that he was well and truly going through the mill at this time. Martyn’s attempts at lightening the mood on Grace and Danger are unconvincing – although slightly more uptempo, songs like Save Some, Grace and Danger and the reggae inflected Johnny Too Bad are still much closer in atmosphere to Joy Division’s Atmosphere than Russ Abbot’s more upbeat version of the same song.
But whilst Grace and Danger is by no means an easy listen, it’s the sheer beauty of the songs that carry the listener through – for me, Grace and Danger is always a treat, possibly the best record that Phil Collins (I kid you not) ever played on and testament to a talent has never really had the recognition I think he deserves. The time to start the posthumous redressing of the balance is now, people!
Rob listened: I guess I have to disagree with Tom on this being not an easy listen. Far from it, it’s a smooth, mellifluous affair, the slippery 80s stylings squirming away beneath Martyn’s dark voice, the whole thing coming off like a rich yet refined confection. I’ve listened to it six or seven times since our get together, usually in back to back plays, and have yet to get a glimpse of its nasty side. I’m sure the payload is there somewhere but perhaps I have a tin ear when it comes to John Martyn’s lyrics. A painful memory returns to me of my mum, reduced almost to tears by my repeated playing of ‘Solid Air’, wherein ‘May You Never’, a song I had only considered beautiful and sweet, struck her like a knife to the heart, years after my dad had passed away. I thought ‘Grace and Danger’ was magnificent, but for now I’m happy skating on its surface.
Nick listened: It’s a while ago now, and, as Tom said under the Darkside post, William Basinski overshadowed everything else we played by sheer force of ideology and aesthetic and discussion thereof. I own Solid Air, because of the Nick Drake connection, but have only listened to it a couple of times. I remember almost nothing about this, except that it was very pleasant. Bloody Basinski.