John Martyn has roamed his own byways, apparently lost in a mythic search whose obstacles were all his own devising - only he knew the portents, the destination. As with Nick Drake, it was the languorous example of Tim Buckley which provided the conduit through which the worth of the English (troubadour) tradition could be re-invented.
It was always the tension between Martyn's air of simmering malevolence -his UN-health (spectacular, for a folkie)- and the utopian ache of his Song that made him magnetic. I always thought his was a more accurate 'Celtic' mythos because of this split between maudlin rootsiness and metaphysical rage; rather than the airiness of The Great Irish Hype, or the Scots neo-triumphalism of Simple Minds, Deacon Blue et al. For a vaguely anachronistic singer/songwriter, he cut a strongly paradoxical figure, suspended between rage/melancholy, acoustic/electric, soppy/psychotic: this was the first golden period of Live At Leeds, One World, Solid Air and Grace & Danger.
In the 80s, Martyn's dogged romanticism went out of fashion, the persona harking back to a time of Glasgae hard men who downed Bells for breakfast.1 But he managed a smooth transition from electrified (or electrocuted) folk to a smooth bruiser's Soul nearer Luther Vandross than Van Morrison. Sapphire and Step By Step2 were both up to form, ruminatively loose and dark.
But he's been running on auto pilot for a while now, which brings us to this album of old favourites - Johnny's Greatest Misses recalled and re-recorded. All the oddities of some of the most organic songs of the past 20 years (One World, Solid Air) have been condensed into an AOR gloss, the melodies rounded down, the shaggy background fabric untwined. Martyn has now got one of the strongest back catalogues extant, but this overhaul does it no good service.
Some of the songs are so special, however, that not all their spectral fire can be wiped away - traces of their flyblown beauty remain; but his delivery has lost most of it's growly gravitas - he's now all loose and no dark. The warp and woof of old has been replaced by a foursquare band sound, all politely chiming keyboards and mellow sax. A pointless exercise recommended only to the disc jockeys of Jazz FM and GLR. Everyone else is directed to the unholy beauty of the originals.
1 Bell's: brand of blended Scotch whisky, best selling whisky in the UK.
2 Piece By Piece, of course. The man also wrote Live In Leeds.
This review was published in The Wire #110, April 1993. It had a cover story on censorship and originally cost £ 2.25.