John Martyn’s ‘Heaven and Earth’ – a flawed artist’s redemption
The last recordings of John Martyn
Review by Doug Heselgrave
John Martyn never made much of a splash in North America, but in Europe and the UK he was a legend for more than three decades. He came out of the same fertile British folk and traditional music scene that gave birth to Pentangle and Fairport Convention at the tail end of the sixties. Like Bert Jansch, John Renbourn and Richard Thompson, Martyn incorporated rock, jazz and Indian elements into his own compositions to create some of the most engaging guitar based music of the era. Yet, of all these artists, Martyn was arguably the most talented, but a tragic decades long addiction to alcohol and drugs reduced the quality of his output, so that by the time of his death, he was little more than a shadow of his former dynamic self.
John Martyn’s descent into substance abuse followed the arc of his creative life to such an extent that one can easily chart his physical and mental dissolution by the corresponding decline in the quality of his work. Attempts at personal and artistic intervention by old friends such as Phil Collins who produced ‘Grace and Danger’ – Martyn’s most commercial album in 1980 – had little effect on either public perception or Martyn himself. (Collins shows up on ‘Heaven and Earth’ singing backup vocals on Martyn’s version of his own ‘Can’t Turn Back’) To his credit, Martyn seemed to pay little attention to public opinion as he kept on recording right up until his death in 2009. Unfortunately, Martyn’s reckless spirit and cavalier approach to traditional song structures didn’t always translate into great music and most of his late period albums were often all but unlistenable. In light of this, it is sometimes difficult to reconcile the groundbreaking artist who penned such tunes as ‘Bless the Weather’, ‘Head and Heart’ and ‘May You Never’ with these later works that sadly illustrated his long slide into mediocrity and irrelevance.
It was a wonderful surprise, then, to hear the newly released, ‘Heaven and Earth’, an album comprised of the best songs from John Martyn’s final sessions. Culled together and produced by Jim Tullio, a Chicago based musician and old friend of Martyn’s, the nine songs that make up the CD form a respectable tribute to a very challenging artist. While there’s nothing here that comes to the level of songs like ‘Don’t Want to Know About Evil’ or ‘Solid Air’ from the early seventies, numbers like ‘Colour’ and the title track demonstrate an earthiness and ease that is very appealing. You can hear every mile travelled, every whiskey drunk and cigarette smoked as Martyn’s voice – sounding more like Barry White’s all the time – slinks and vamps his way through this hard luck set of songs. Like BB King, Martyn plays fewer notes on the guitar than ever, yet still succeeds in saying all he has to say without any fuss or mess. Garth Hudson – another old friend from the sixties – shows up to play accordion during these sessions– an addition that gives the record sound a rootsy edge that had been long missing from Martyn’s work.
While there’s nothing on ‘Heaven and Earth’ that reaches the level of artistry heard on earlier records like ‘Solid Air’, ‘Bless the Weather’ or ‘Stormbringer’ (his collaboration with Levon Helm from 1969), it should go a long way towards re-establishing the reputation he once enjoyed. Definitely worth a listen.
this article also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
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