Philentropy (Body Swerve)

Hung Up On Hypertrophy.

THERE ARE those – and they are many in today’s athletic Popular-hypertrophic music field – who can impress a vocal line upon a certain heavily overworked, resonant back-tracking; but mostly they lack, in their build, in their brassy confidence, the ease which seems to mark out the etemaisinger. . . Someone, who – seemingly cut out for nothing other than singing – endures, whose song breathes: a song not necessarily filled with remarks, which cuts free.

This is not to preclude the likelihood of wounds, of breaks, of tears, breakers, mistakes, giveaways – for all these may go towards the resilient economy of their singing. True, false, truly not of this world or truly awful, questions of time do not bother or erode, interrupt or interpret these waits, pirates – who sing not of facts but of figures. Thus, John Martyn: a balancing act. Legend as much for vice as voice, “Oh Johnnie you’re too bad,” forever off on the same rails, trails, tales, sometimes susceptible to a certain kind of strung out stringing along, and then again, sometimes a thousand years of voice, John Martyn: a tale of what it takes to set the voice free.

Then, for now, this ‘Philentropy’, unannounced, apparently from out of nowhere. John Martyn and musicians troupe, touch jazzy, softly sharply recorded in three English places, ’82 and ’83. Shuffling around, memories of songs concentrated or consecrated (his business), elliptically, unearthed. For a moment, as always, you have to hesitate before the start of the Live Album – but ‘Philentropy’ slips in so quietly, without ranfare, that the seclusion seduces, Not interms of an escape from the ‘pressures’ of today’s ghastly glamour, not a nostalgic plea for the restoration of ‘old’ values (the troubador as a more authentic voice; definitely not) . . . because a Martyn, at any time, is obviously far more shifty, shifting, unstable, impermanent, permeable, than most of today’s end-of-the-peer show. In Martyn there is always a shade or a universe more of the rupture, the unsanitary and inhuman condition, ignition, impulse, insanity and polymorphous perversity (!yes!) of pop. . than in any old Marilyn (such an event, such a person, will never bear the fruit, the child, the nought, the disembodied neuter of a Buckled or Martynated voice).

Then there are the accrued implications of a Martyn signifying something of a stasis, some ‘comfort’, some unreconstituted pre-’76 ZigZaginess, some spectre of age’s approach on the perpetual adolescence of Pop. But just look at today’s: could there be anything further from a Tim Buckley or John Martyn in its propriety, tastefulness, decorum, good sense, Sobriety, cleanliness? We might well recall that Buckley, the voice that left behind the world to become Starsailor, and could then only fail – with all the most sublime ease left in the world – back into the cast of worldly songs, and things. So, too, John Martyn.

The troubador continues to stand singing in the shadow of their volcano, that they might never scale them again is unimportant – and we shouldn’t demand any explanation. Out of their own laws they broke, and every then and again they re-procureffi eir trespass.

So, officially, of this perhaps unofficial recording, I can tell you that you will find a Martyn’s voice stretching itself far more than the last official time it was released – on last year’s WEA ‘Well Kept Secret’ (whose ‘Hung Up’ receives a most beautiful, superior, rendering here).

So, now and here, to hear this ’82-83 John Martyn is to hear a voice that, even in lullaby, pulls towards an unfamiliar, irrational, and – above it all – corporeal slumber. So, plied: some northern comfort, slow sharps, sudden deaths (the dramatic elongation – from its Perryfied forest state into a series of plateaux – of ‘Johnnie Too Bad’), songs of a man’s luxuriante in the sum of his pasts and some of his presents, projected as a poisonous howl or besotted slur; in his clown’s coat, and his sick bed; as a devil’s vocalist who satiates the angels.

The voice shows time its door – back into the body and released again, “hear the voice say, come…” John Martyn, his balancing art: sometimes a perfect suspension.

Ian Penman
New Musical Express
3 December 1983