"Inside Out" (Island)
YOU COULD SAY that the post decadence rock scene is structured rather like the society of ants: a hangover of old drones twittering away behind last year's plump queens - and a few lean workers here and there trying to rebuild the crumbling territory.
John Martyn is definitely one of the workers. He's been working his way slowly towards an optimum means of personal expression for the last six years - towards something that (as he mumbles at the beginning of this, this seventh album) 'feels natural' without vegetating. And the message of this review is that he's finally made it and at just the right time for the termitary to benefit most from his struggle.
The paradox of Inside Out is that Martyn has reached his long-[prepaired] fruition whilst simultaneously forfeiting most of his commercial potential. People who haven't got into his stuff before will find his percepts forcefully out of key with these times and his concept of the 'natural' performance far from the normal idea of what's Impressive.
In particular, they'll find it a strain to understand what John's singing about half the time since his vocal trademark -a deep, shady slur that embeds itself in the timbre of the instruments around it- has metamorphosed into a kind of melodic buzzing sound which, whilst a 'natural' and highly effective development for listeners to Bless The Weather and Solid Air, will probably be bewildering to strangers.
So, presuming that here I preach mostly to the converted, I won't get heavy trying to explain what makes Martyn such a unique experience. Just report what's happening on Inside Out and leave the rest to you.
Fine Lines eases the listener into a weird atmospheric mixture of absolutely relaxed inner tensions relating outwardly to each other at white heat. An atmosphere in which fragments of studio-talk and instrument-tuning crackle in and out between bursts of concerted energy, without ever limiting the record to the physical feel of a studio.
In fact, the second track, a wild and windy statement of the Celtic folk-melody Eibhli Ghail Chiuin Ni Chearbhail by Martyn's fussed guitar and Danny Thompson's saw-edged bass, opens the album out into larger dimensions of the elemental than any of his previous storm/rain/air things.
Ain't No Saint pulls us back indoors with the best song of the set (and an amazing mix in which a tabla reinforces the chorus like a dark, irregular heart-beat), giving way to a slightly less than perfect studio-realization of Outside In, the epic electronic number that dominates Martyn's current stage-act.
Best moments from Side Two are the criss-crossing patterns of the Traffic-like Look In (with actual participation by Steve Winwood and Chris Wood) and the coda to Make No Mistake in which Martyn shouts out the album's message: 'It's Love!'
And, if a cynical sneer rises to your lips in this connection, I can only say that Flowerpower relates to John Martyn the way that hopscotch relates to ski-jumping. It's real, risky, and not many people can do it.
Elsewhere, The Glory Of Love comes on a little soggy and Ways To Cry fails to make much impression. So Much In Love With You, a downbeat, bluesy vamp, closes the album with a hard-bitten half-smile, fading loosely in defiance of all the laws of dramatic effect and thus remaining faithful to the ethics of a very original creative venture.
Like all really good things, Inside Out is new - which means it needs some hard work to sort out. On the other hand, like all new things, it means a vitamin-shot in the jugular for the culture that kicked it off, the scene being infinitely the healthier for the presence of blasts of solid air like John Martyn.
This review was printed on page 20 in the company of Focus' At The Rainbow and Use What You Got by The Staple Singers.