John Martyn | Heaven and Earth
Album review by John Powell
Heaven And Earth is British mastermind John Martyn's 20th studio album, and it's also his last. He died at the age of 61, leaving behind these nine oddly addicting tracks. His past collaborators include Eric Clapton and his admirers include Lee 'Scratch' Perry- meaning that his creativity is as groundbreaking as his knowledge of music was classic. Still, the question with Heaven And Earth remains, in what sort of category do you place it?
Let's start with Heel Of The Hunt. The very first thing you hear on the album is John's gruff, late-night radio jockey voice stating, "Big trouble | little China," and then his electric guitar streams in, passionately. He has a long list of musicians he works with, and which songs they play on aren't credited, but the keyboards on Heel Of The Hunt are fiery. On first listen, you won't even pay attention to John's lyrics. You'll be engaged in the groove, a bluesy rogue of instrumentation that could be in a sports car commercial. On the sixth listen, however, you'll tune in to John, whose voice at 61 is near unintelligible, but man, please, listen in. While his lyrics are often disjointed, they are at times poignant and original. "Tonto was no fool | though he cried," John sings. "Don't make me laugh."
Stand Amazed is a Dr. John-influenced groove, accordion (by Garth Hudson) included. It's a really funky tune that hits a minor key bridge. Half the lyrics are "I stand amazed," but John adds, "Every single day | in the kitchen | doing nothing." The backing vocals are sexy, and John would be too, if he didn't sound his age. Still, the light swagger he puts into his performance gives him a near-youthfulness.
Gambler is a slinky alleyway romp, driven by Alan Thomson's bass. This might be a good time to mention the bass, at the forefront of the album, deliciously rounded out and percussive. On Gambler it feeds John's voice when he sings, "My father was a gambler | 52 cards | he was a joker." The guitar hits harmonics and the piano stays swampy.
A key track is Could've Told You Before I Met You. This song enters quickly, the keys held out and the drums heavy and fixed. John mumbles under his breath before the band rises into euphoria, matching the look of the album cover, a vast field and blue skies all around. "Welcome to a love invisible," John sings. "I could've told you before I met you | how it would be." Honestly, this song is catchy, ferocious, sweet. With a pleasant guitar solo and the piano increasingly heavier and low end, the song whirls into blissfulness. "Welcome to a feeling intangible," John adds, which is what the song is like, in many ways, something you wish you could hold or squeeze. If you take nothing else away from Heaven And Earth, please hear this song. Download it. Stream it. Whatever.
If there's a low point, it's the title track, which isn't necessarily bad, it's just very jazzy and John attempts vocals beyond his ability. He sounds drunk and fallen over. Still, it's a good enough song with sharp-sounding drums.
Not many young music lovers will likely have heard of John Martyn. He's the sort of musician, like Leon Russell, that flew under the radar except for other musicians that knew him and appreciated him. I hadn't really listened to John's music before, but with his last studio album he shows that he has command over all walks of music, and holds it together by songs about enjoying the little things in life, a hopeful, happy, and content musician that loved music as much as he did life. I say, he's worth checking out.
Bottom line: An excellent send-off for a man with a unique voice and passion for his art.
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