In the sleeve notes to this retooled version of John Martyn's masterpiece, John Hillarby recalls an offstage moment when the singer –a man not in the habit of unpicking his lyrics– was asked to explain what he meant by 'solid air'. Martyn's answer was jocularly dismissive – something to the effect that the song's meaning was obvious. Which it is, though not in a way that is easily catalogued.
Solid Air, the song, is known to have been written by Martyn for his friend, Nick Drake, and its verses are couched in style of the period; poetic verging on the mystical. When Martyn was writing this album, in 1972, Drake was an occasional visitor to his home in Hastings, and would, by all accounts, spend much of the time staring hopelessly through the window. Knowing this, and bearing in mind that Drake would commit suicide two years later, you might see solid air as a symbol of an atmospheric heaviness, or suffocation. And it's true, the song supports that interpretation, with Martyn apparently empathising with his friend's behaviour. "Don't know what's going wrong inside," he sings, "and I can tell you that it's hard to hide when you're living on solid air." Even the notion of solid air is ambiguous – oblivion might more obviously be represented by thin air.
But such a literal approach doesn't really do justice to the song, or the album. Martyn had little time for critics, and their habit of adding biographical flesh to his writing. The business of analysing lyrics, he said more than once, was "a pain in the arse". So while Drake was his inspiration, the lyric goes beyond whatever private meaning Martyn may have ascribed to it. 'Solid Air' has its own logic, and can apply to any circumstance in which someone is trying to empathise with the pain of a friend. On another day it could describe the suffering of a lover, struggling to re-connect with a distant partner. Or, if you put aside the words and just listen to the sounds Martyn makes while singing them –something his slurring, humming delivery encourages– what you get is a soothing balm rather than a counsel of despair.
All of which is a roundabout way of recognising that Solid Air marked the moment when Martyn transcended his influences. He had signed to Island in 1967, as a sweet-voiced singer-songwriter, but quickly evolved beyond the limitations of the genre – disappointing those who’d categorised him as a palliative singer-songwriter in the manner of Cat Stevens.
Not that Solid Air doesn't have its moments of pure loveliness. It includes Martyn's sweetest pop song, May You Never, a lullaby in which optimism triumphs over every possible cause of the blues. Martyn's philosophy gets its most succinct airing in Don't Want To Know, a ridiculously infectious peace mantra, in which the singer votes for love over evil. In recent years, some have suggested that the sentiments of this song are somehow locked in the hippy era that spawned them, but the imagery –of crass materialism, and planes falling from the sky– seems more prescient than that.
Around the edges of these songs, Martyn and double bassist Danny Thompson do strange things to the blues. Skip James' Devil Got My Woman is wrung out and reborn in a draining improv, I'd Rather Be The Devil, while elsewhere the band add psych cornicing to a collage of jazz and folk. Their noise is hard to categorise: you might call it soul, though it would be the soul of The Temptations redecorating their Psychedelic Shack while the jazzy neighbours host a yard sale on an autumn afternoon.
Solid Air was recorded in around eight days, so it's hardly surprising that the outtakes don't differ radically from the finished versions. There are a couple of instrumental versions, and the sense of a band exercising their way towards artistic economy. The jams are baggier, the psychedelic flourishes more pronounced; interesting for the aficionado, but ultimately a reminder of the perfection of the originals. More interesting is Never Say Never (sometimes called When It's Dark) – a ruminative ballad that stretches on beautifully for eight minutes, and benefits from a slight roughness in the performance. Then there is In The Evening; a gorgeous late-night strum which almost collapses under the weight of its own weariness.
When Martyn died in January, there was much talk of his influence, on Eric Clapton, the Durutti Column, on Portishead. Some suggested he invented trip hop: a harsh thing to say about a man who wasn't around to defend himself. Forget influence. As this serves to remind, Martyn is still among us, and still vital.