JOHN MARTYN seems fated to inspire madness and mayhem, no matter how utterly shambolic the circumstances he finds himself in. (And they usually are).
Maybe it's simply the unique foggy voice, at its most hoarsely suggestive on Dealer, one of this new album's many compelling tracks; or just the man's awesome ability to trick out what are invariably simple songs with ravishing detail – as witness here Dancing, unfeignedly joyous and wrapped around a few brief guitar phrases.
Whatever, Martyn's concern for change and renewal sees him in the company of old cohort John Stevens, drummer in jazz and other musics and whose name is criminally misspelt in the sleeve credits,1 Steve Winwood of the superb soul voice (denied us here, unfortunately) and catholic range of instruments, reggae trombonist Rico and folkie Dave Pegg2 on bass, plus Martyn's long-standing partner, bassist Danny Thompson, whose background in jazz, blues and folk approximates pretty much to Martyn's own enduring interests.
For though no traditional material is included, as on his last studio album (Spencer The Rover and Satisfied Mind) and speculators may be fooled by tracks like Big Muff, Smiling Stranger and Dealer into thinking Martyn has more or less completely rocked out –not to mention funked out– nevertheless, long-time sources are tacitly acknowledged again and again.
The most musicianly track on the album is the title song, One World, sung in secretive, incantatory fashion as if in a private dream and accompanied by crazy febrile guitar and uncannily sinuous walking bass. Far from embracing an utopian ideology as one critic has suggested (though this can be very much Martyn's bag),3 the bleak lyrics are almost daintily cruel at times: "If you ain't got two words to say/ I can't talk to you/ No use crying, there's been no crime/ I say it's just the way the wind blows…"
Sometimes Martyn's lyrics recall Leonard Cohen ("Standing at the airport with the smile of a saviour/ Selling off a piece of my favourite flavour"). Other times Ray Davies ("Standing at the welfare, with the pay-off in my hand/ Waiting for the gimme from the much obliged man").
Both quotes are from Smiling Stranger, after One World and Big Muff (replete with conga-like bass drum rhythms and ghostly cymbal shots) probably the most interesting track on the album, featuring as it does a brief modal solo from George Lee's sax, just to unsettle the shifting melody lines, and some of Martyn's creamiest vocals ever. Guaranteed to chill your spine.
1 The sleeve says Jon Stevens but this might well be a form of modern spelling.
2 The review says Bob Pegg. Talking about criminal misspelling..
3 Prendergast is referring to Monty Smith in his NME review of 19 November 1977: "As for the 'gentle bits', they're probably best exemplified by the title track, in which Martyn adopts his sorrowful slur to expound his utopian UN ideology. It's amazing, really, that anyone embracing all this useless old hippy shit can actually be convincing, but total commitment is part of Martyn's genius."