On The Cobbles

The great man’s 22nd studio album and his third for Independiente. Paul Weller and Mavis Staples guest.

One of the few constants in John Martyn’s shape shifting career has been his music’s extraordinary sensuality. Pure feel oxygenated his 1973 proto-chill out classic, Solid Air, and circa 2000’s lush, jazz-imbued Glasgow Walker, the textures were almost rich enough to taste. Now comes On The Cobbles, something of a stylistic composite of those two records, and another banquet for the ears. Stalked by languorous sax, crisp clavinet, soothing fretless bass, muted trumpet and the taut roll and snap of Martyn’s acoustic guitar, it’s been concocted with the same care and devotion that Rick Stein might afford a signature bouillabaisse.

Like 1980’s Grace And Danger, a raw account of Martyn’s divorce from first wife Beverley, On The Cobbles is also the product of a testing gestation. In April 2003, Martyn had a leg amputated below the knee after a seemingly innocuous injury became seriously infected. A prosthetic limb has since brought him increased mobility and he’ll be out on tour by the time you read this. Still, the air of calm and well-being that imbues much of this album is a tad surprising.

Though always a diarist in song, Martyn doesn’t address his recent misfortunes directly here. Instead, he waxes philosophical, or simply celebrates life (viz One For The Road’s overt joie de vivre), drawing strength, one suspects, from the tenets of the Buddhist faith he adopted back in 1998. There is, however, a sleeve note dedication to the surgeons and nurses of Waterford Hospital, Ireland, and his take on Ledbetter and Lomax’s Goodnight Irene a heart warming duet with the mighty Mavis Staples closes with a jokey, off mic reference to dropping his “fucking stick”.

Such self-effacing humour says much about his magnanimous nature, of course, as does Under My Wing, a fine pop soul nugget with flighty, acid jazz flute. As Paul Weller plays Wurlitzer and sings choice, uncharacteristically subtle back up, Martyn invites someone long term girlfriend Theresa, perhaps? To let him take the strain. Further into the album, however, one begins to sense some soul searching in the face of increased infirmity, coupled with a thoughtful mapping of new co-ordinates. “I meet them in the guise of friends, and they all know my name,” Martyn sings on Ghosts. And given his friends once included late legends Nick Drake and Free’s Paul Kossoff, it’s difficult not to freight that lyric with starry eyed significance.

Moreover, on My Creator, a luxurious, piano and sax rich gem which may be the album’s texture fest par excellence, Martyn reports, “I believe I heard a voice this morning, I believe I heard it twice.” His Creator’s advice? “Be still inside your heart. Love until you can love no more.”

While Glasgow Walker was mostly written on a Korg Trinity keyboard at the suggestion of Phil Collins, On The Cobbles restores Martyn’s long standing romance with six strings stretched over wood. Frankie Miller’s Baby Come Home (Martyn’s version first appeared on the various artists album, A Tribute To Frankie Miller) is a saucy, skifflish delight with bass harmonica; Back To Marseilles an evocative, rolling acoustic guitar idyll in which the air smells of “mint tea and marjoram”. A word, while we’re at it, about Martyn’s voice: with its sax like glissandos and myriad gradations of timbre, it’s the treasurable embodiment of dues long-since paid.

Like Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind or Paddy MacAloon’s I Trawl The Megahertz, On The Cobbles reminds us that, when an artist’s physiology rebels or malfunctions, the fresh perspective comes all too easily and the resultant record is often strong. An old fashioned triumph over adversity story, then; one of the best you’re likely to hear this year.

James McNair
Mojo No.127
1 June 2004