John Martyn is one of those musicians I always seem to be one step removed from: he influenced the people I like, or he worked with them, or otherwise just hung out with them on a semiregular basis– and yet he himself seems to be fairly underrecognised these days. Perhaps that’s a function of his choice of genre, which in Solid Air veers from Fairport Convention style folk, to blues, to something that might be prog rock. Whatever it is, I wish his publicist luck.
My sole knowledge of him for a long time was the title track of Solid Air, which was on a folk compilation I bought not long after Martyn rereleased his album in 2006. Finally looking him up this week, I note that what is apparently the “most famous” track on Solid Air, “May You Never”, is one I’ve never heard of; but that another, “I’d Rather Be the Devil”, inspired the tile of a recent Inspector Rebus novel. Always that one step removed.
It was his singing on “Solid Air”, then, that ultimately prompted me to listen to John Martyn’s work properly: it came up on a playlist of mine recently and I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. The song itself is a combination of clean strings and shambling, mumbled vocals, written for Nick Drake eighteen months before Drake took his final overdose. Usually it’s the lyrics that make or break a song for me, and not being able to make out more than a third of them is enough to make me give up. But this time it’s a clear choice, and an interesting one, although I wonder how good a standard-bearer for the whole album it is. On the one hand, it’s off-kilter, and probably the slowest song on the whole album. On the other hand, it’s difficult to categorise more than that, or even to tell you clearly whether I liked it, so maybe it’s a pretty good standard bearer after all.
The rest of the album grew on me with multiple listenings, and the main reason for that is Martyn’s voice. Sometimes it really works, giving songs like “May You Never” and “Don’t Want to Know” a light, soft touch – those two in particular feel like very easy listening. In contrast, the more electronic “Dreams by the Sea” feels like it could get old more quickly, even if it hadn’t done yet by the end of my second listen. Hands down the most interesting track – and the longest – is “I’d Rather Be the Devil”, which is where my preferences and John Martyn’s were furthest apart. But that really is a matter of taste: I’ll admit that it’s very well-composed, and at any rate I put it in front of my prog-lover in residence who listened to it twice and declared it good albeit again with off-kilter vocals. Martyn’s voice is like Marmite, I think, both in the sense that you either love it or loathe it, and that if you add a little bit to some other dish then it brings out the flavour of the whole thing.
Other highlights include “Over the Hill” which is probably the song with the largest number of contributors – including, I am informed, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention on the mandolin – and my personal low-key favourite, “The Man in the Station”. The last track, “The Easy Blues”, is a really high note to end on, a bluesy sort of jazz that feels like the polar opposite to the opener “Solid Air”. There’s range here, no doubt. I can appreciate Solid Air, even if I don’t wholeheartedly adore it.