IT SO happens that Martyn has just released Sapphire (Island L38276), a self-produced, reggae-soaked album recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau.
Martyn's career matches his unpredictable personality. He is a brilliant guitarist with a distinctive, instrumental vocal style but he often seems unable to focus his considerable skills. Phil Collins produced his Glorious Fool LP in 1981 (with Clapton guesting on one track) but it didn't sell. The same fate befell the aptly-named but equally meritorious Well Kept Secret a year later and Martyn, who had ended a long association with Island records to try his luck with WEA, took a break from recording.
He has bounced back with his old label and Sapphire but, like the previous efforts, it is an erratic recording. It would be an excellent after-dinner album played at low volume - Martyn spends most of his time in a pleasurable reggae haze, his smoky vocals and the repetitive rhythms nudging the songs gently along, with occasional forays into more driving tempos.
The title number is a lush, seductive ballad, with pulsing rhythmic and synthesiser patterns, while his rendition of Over The Rainbow has a terrific vocal over an effective rhythm arrangement (unfortunately, too close to The Cars' Drive for comfort).
Fisherman's Dream, an appealing ballad with a folk feel, features a brief, economical guitar solo that prompts the question: why has Martyn relegated his guitar to a rhythmic supporting role?
Other tracks of note are Mad Dog Days, with a chopping rhythm and sinuous saxophone, and the atmospheric Rope-Soul'd, a jazzy reggae hybrid with spare bass, piano and sax lines and a vocal that recalls the late Nick Drake's detached, dreamy style.
If you took the best tracks from Martyn's last four or five albums you would have a very good record. He thanks Robert Palmer for his help on Sapphire - perhaps with Palmer in the producer's chair next time, John Martyn will record the great album he always has threatened but never achieved.
The Age is a Melbourne based newspaper. This review appeared in the Records section on Thursday 4 April 1985. It is part of 'New Notes' by Mike Daly.