JOHN MARTYN The Apprentice.
John Martyn: never this year’s model, but never last year’s either.
Never quite being this year’s model does have its positive side: you can’t be last year’s either. Since first setting foot on the scene in 1968 as a fledgling Scots folkie, John Martyn’s career has had more blips in it than most; at times even ducking out of sight altogether. Yet even with mass acclaim passing him by he’s always held a reputation for being something of a quality artist, one whose work is well enough crafted to withstand the perils of time or the vagaries of fashion. Arguably any well balanced record collection would hove room for at least one of his dozen or so previous offerings. And for a whole generation of babyboomers the warm currents generated by Solid Air, in particular, are likely to rekindle memories of blissfully reclining on darkened floors while being overpowered by scented candles so as to more fully appreciate the rich, golden, gurgling vocalese and Echoplex.
Even from the early days a degree of experimentation and a crucial affinity with jazz pushed him away from the pack. His current style and sound, if not unique, certainly has few peers, having evolved naturally through a series of twists and turns that in its time has equally managed to soak up some of the rhythms of reggae and the blues. And if The Apprentice doesn’t have to call upon the cathartic experiences that underwrote Grace And Danger or muster the tout funk of Well Kept Secret then .erhaps that merely reflects a greater peace of mind at present. Surely nobody would begrudge him that.
So breaking the best part of four years’ silence, Live On Love at once establishes the tone of equanimity by building into a massive, heady affirmation of what it means to be saved by the love of a good woman. Deny This Love sports a similarly sturdy backbone, this time aided by Andy Sheppard’s spiralling sax, while Hold Me puts out the same message of satisfaction even though the tempo is more relaxed. Martyn’s ballads, economical and simply stated, have always been a strength and The Moment maintains that tradition with becoming grace. Send Me One Line, a pretty enough tune, sails a little too close to one of Lionel Richie’s rather more sticky moments, however.
Better by for is The River’s easy flowing lines, the quiet anger of Income Town (recorded live) complete with vocals contorted all over the place and what could amost be a mute on the guitar, and the dramatic title track with its agonised, third party cries of ‘What’s wrong with my lifer rising against the sudden jolts of combined sax, keyboards and guitar. It’s easily the most demonstrative moment on what is the most controlled of albums.
As well as signalling John Martyn’s return to the fray, The Apprentice marks the end of a lengthy association with Island Records. Yet neither break seems to have done him any harm. He is now what he’s always been: a master of his craft, a class act. That’s rare indeed.****
1 March 1990