THERE was a time when pop music was considered a young person's career, and a short-lived one at that. Now, as the Rolling Stones prepare to release a new LP at the start of a year in which Bill Wyman will celebrate his fiftieth birthday, all that has to be reconsidered.
Just as great blues, country and folk singers can improve with age, so -in some cases- can great pop singers. Certainly, the two best albums of this week come from one British artist who has been playing professionally for 20 years (and recording for 18) and a relative newcomer who has been recording for a mere nine.
John Martyn is the veteran, but it's a mark of his distinctive and ever-changing style, that he now sounds as innovative and contemporary as he did back in the sixties.
In 1968 [sic], when he was the first white artist invited to join the then-reggae-dominated Island label, he was a folkie acoustic guitarist in the Bert Jansch and Davey Graham tradition. In the early seventies, recording with his wife Beverley at a time when he was "into heavy duty kaftan and bells," he'd become a hippy acoustic rocker.
JOHN MARTYN: Piece By Piece (Island)
THE COSTELLO SHOW: King Of America (F-Beat)
LL COOL J: Radio (Def Jam)
STEEL PULSE: Babylon The Bandit (Elektra)
Later, working as a soloist again, he was to develop his gentle, jazzy style first acoustically, then with a band. Phil Collins helped him to explore a tougher style, and by the eighties he had moved from acoustic folk right through to jazz-funk.
This week, to celebrate the start of his twentieth Anniversary Tour, he releases what is claimed as the world's first compact disc single (also available as an ordinary piece of plastic), as a taster for his new LP, released next week.1
What's remarkable about both the single, Angeline, and the Piece By Piece album, is that they show yet another shift in his approach, to a style that I suspect will prove by far his most commercial yet. He concentrates on the quality of his singing more than ever before, with that distinctive, half-swallowed, half-slurred vocal style now sounding quite remarkably classy and sophisticated.
The songs are among the most relaxed and tuneful he has written - several compare well with early classics like May You Never, and the result is, for the most part, an exercise in mesmeric, luxuriant white soul.
Seven of the nine songs simply run together, for they are gently relaxing, rhythmic,
late-night mood pieces with drifting melodies, backed by synths and horns propping up
Martyn's vocals. Apart from the current single, both Lonely Love and Who Believes In Angels could well prove lasting favourites.
This set of songs is packaged between two others that show off quite a different side of his work. The opening Nightline is dramatic and percussive, while the closing I Am John Wayne is a wailing, growling, declamatory piece that's a reminder there can also be a furious side to his work (after all, he wrote Glorious Fool about Ronald Reagan). Twenty years on, a set of songs like this is no mean achievement.
Elvis Costello has also notched up something of an achievement with his new LP, the first he has recorded without his backing band of the past nine years, The Attractions (although they do appear on one track). […]
1 This points to a release date of Monday 24 February 1986.
This was published in The Guardian of Friday 21 February 1986.