One World (Island)
THE SABBATICAL has done the man good. John Martyn has returned with a remarkable album, his first studio work in two years.
What attracted me to Martyn's music from the very beginning –well, since Stormbringer actually- was the extraordinary sturdiness of his best songs (Go Out And Get It, Would You Believe Me?, May You Never, Root Love, Look In, the list is long indeed), evincing a simultaneously tough and tender approach.
"I'd like the nasty bits to get nastier and the gentle bits to get more gentle," was the way in which he summed up his new direction. And Martyn has never been one to stand still, each successive album displaying a marked step forward rare in rock music.
His characteristically pugnacious qualities are well to the fore on One World, his romanticism remaining blowsy, his rhythms bluesy.
Smiling Stranger is an insistent example of the complexity of Martyn's music, the lattice of sound –voice, guitar, moog, bass, drums, tabla, sax and strings- brilliantly orchestrated and thrillingly hypnotic. He has a Scotsman's non-conformist way with words, too:
"Standing at the Welfare, with the payoff in my hand / Waiting for the gimme from the much obliged man / I'm a smiling stranger, smiling stranger every day."
There are few voices so splendidly equipped to deliver his lyrics, which by turn are sensitive, sly, obsessional and elliptical, but always passionate. The man is palpably besotted with life, communicating his warmth and torment through words and music. Perplexing words, absorbing music.
Dealer is a tremendous, compulsive opening cut. Vicious propulsion is supplied by echoplex guitar, thunderous drums and sinuous moog as Martyn's throaty snarl snaps out the threatening narrative:
"They tell me that they dig my shit / So I sell it to them cheap / I bring my scales and check the deal / Are you scared that I might cheat? / Well you're just the spit and polish / On a fat man's shiny shoes / I think I'd hate them for it / And I think they hate me too."
The other 'nasty bit' is Big Muff, the outcome of Martyn's trip to Jamaica for 'exploratory' sessions with Lee Perry and Jack Ruby. Co-written with Perry, 'Muff' isn't overtly dub (Martyn wouldn't be that obvious) and Lord knows what it's about, but it sounds vaguely indecent as the music inexorably draws the listener into its dense rhythms.
As for the 'gentle bits', they're probably best exemplified by the title track, in which Martyn adopts his sorrowful slur to expound his utopian UN ideology. It's amazing, really, that anyone embracing all this useless old hippy shit can actually be convincing, but total commitment is part of Martyn's genius.
Anyhow, it's musically arresting, the multi-tracked flutes seductively meshing with the mellow, 'traditional' side of the echoplex. The love songs on side two are instantly affecting, a resonant bass line and organ as sweet as a double-dollop of honey gracing Couldn't Love You More, and Rico's rasping trombone elevating Certain Surprise to an exhilarating, exultant expression of glowing warmth.
Dancing, a likeable upbeat lig, grows in stature (like all the other songs) with repeated listening, before Martyn closes the album with the eight and a half minute Small Hours. It's a mysterious affirmation of life continuing, a synthesized heartbeat underlying the languorous, unsettling incandescence of the music.
Throughout, the musicianship is exemplary, Martyn's accompanists including Stevie Winwood, John Stevens, Hansford Rowe, Morris Pert and Tristran Fry.
Mean, moogy and magnificent, One World is the most mesmerising album I've heard this year. More complete, even, than Bowie's.1 Just plain better than everything else.
1 Smith is referring to Heroes (released 14 October 1977).
Material uploaded by Roger Thornhill.