The Church With One Bell
The Church With One Bell (8/10)
Thirty years on from his debut as a fresh-faced Sixties folkie, the demons pursuing John Martyn show no sign of abating. Throughout a career that has seen him metamorphose from solo acoustic picker to moody AOR stylist via experimental jazz rocker, the trail of this maverick troubadour has been cursed with all the hell hounds of a mythical bluesman. Or blessed, if you are a listener. For the Scottish singer and guitarist has survived artistic dead ends, substance abuse and even the death of collaborators Paul Kossoff and Nick Drake, imbuing his music with a haunting sound that unfolds as compellingly as the diary of a condemned man.
The same relentless undercurrent of despair, which has often been his commercial undoing (even if his 1994 release was somehow packaged as a greatest hits compilation), has also guaranteed Martyn a cult following. Over the years, his stark sonic landscapes have captured the imagination of artists such as Richard Thompson, Steve Winwood, Kossoff and Drake, all collaborators at one time or another and Eric Clapton covered May You Never from Solid Air (1973), arguably the pick of his catalogue of more than 20 albums.
For all his musical twists, the enduring fixture is Martyn as the possessor of one of the most harrowing and emotionally charged voices in the business. Sure enough, The Church With One Bell showcases his battle-scarred throaty growl in all its glory, treating the listener to the full spectrum of timbres from mellow drunkenness to mantra-like ramblings. It reaches a veritable death rattle on The Sky Is Crying which finds the beleaguered singer teetering on the brink of insanity as he delivers the darkest possible rendition of the Elmore James blues standard. Equally disturbing is the trademark slurred ranting on Excuse Me Mister, a soulful take on Ben Harper’s plea to a world oblivious to its own self-destruction.
As if to focus on delivering a definitive vocal performance, Martyn confines the guitars to the background, allowing tasteful piano and drums to lead the way, and abandons the songwriting chores in favour of a full bag of covers. Apparently prompted to explore his musical influences by the renovation of his local village church, he duly conjures up images as diverse as Portishead’s Glory Box and Randy Newman’s God’s Song alongside rootsy selections from Lightnin’ Hopkins and the Reverend Gary Davis.
But Martyn’s charm is that he was never a purist and the result is a surprisingly cohesive blend, with the unhinged vocals providing a common thread as the musical backdrop varies from morbid to funky. Not that it is all doom’n’gloom, with the easy grooves of Small Town Talk and He’s Got All the Whiskey providing welcome relief from the soul searching.
More accessible, certainly, than And, his elusive 1996 outing. But make no mistake, a glimpse of John Martyn’s music is a glimpse of the far side.
21 March 1998