JOHN MARTYN-SOLID AIR.
JOHN MARTYN-SOLID AIR.
Previously I have written about the artist this article is about. After I’d written that article, I was listening to some of his old albums and though that I’d write another article on this artist. The problem was, which album. With this artist, he has recorded so many good albums. Having spent some time listening his old albums, I decided to write about John Martyn’s 1973 album Solid Air. Solid Air is an album that’s critically acclaimed, and is found in any list of the best albums of all time. I will now tell why Solid Air is such a good album.
The first song on the album is the title track Solid Air. This is one of John Martyn’s best known songs. It was written about his good friend Nick Drake, the legendary singer Nick Darke, who had recently died of a drug overdose. From the opening bars, it’s apparent that this is a beautiful and deeply moving song. Solid Air opens with Martyn playing acoustic guitar and Danny Thompson playing bass. When Martyn sings, his voice is full of character, it’s unlike no other voice. He almost slurs the lyrics in some places. It’s a heartfelt delivery of some beautiful lyrics. In the song, he sings about Drake “I don’t know what went wrong in your mind” and “you’ve been living on solid air.” Martyn has been deeply affected by the loss of his friend, and expresses his grief in the song. When you listen to the song, the arrangement is perfect, it’s subtle and understated. Martyn and Thompson are joined by Tony Coe on saxophone and Tristan Fry on vibes. The effect is stunning, and together, they’ve produced a beautiful song, one that is a fitting tribute to a much loved friend, and extremely talented singer and musician.
After such a beautiful opening track, it’s a hard act to follow. Anything else, you feel, will be an anticlimax. However, Martyn responds well with Over the Hill, a much more uptempo song. The arrangement still focuses on acoustic instruments, but here, Marttyn’s voice is much clearer. He sings the lyrics well, and plays the guitar. His playing is faster, and on the track, is joined by a mandolin, autoharp and violin. One of the guest artists is Richard Thomson, of Fairport Convention. Over the Hill is a very different sounding track, and in some ways, takes Martyn back to his folk roots. Like Solid Air, the arrangement understated, perfect for this track.
Another of the album’s best tracks is next. I Don’t Want To Know is a cover of a Skip Spence song. It’s a track that has been covered by many artists, but John Martyn’s version is one of the best. The track opens with Martyn gently strumming his guitar. Straight away, you realize that this is a stunning track. It almost sends shivers down your spine. John Martyn sings the song beautifully, his voice, for the most part gentle, and only raising it towards the end for effect. Here he demonstrates what great voice he possessed. The arrangement is stunning, it never overpowers the vocal, and compliments it beautifully. One of the highlights of the track is the electric piano solo, which reinforces the beauty of the melody. It’s truly a brilliant song, and a highlight of Solid Air.
I’d Rather Be the Devil is a very different song to all the previous tracks. Whereas all the previous tracks were subtle, downtempo tracks, with the emphasis on acoustic instruments, this track is electric, it’s also loud and sees Martyn and the band cut loose. From the opening bars, you can tell a change is afoot. Martyn’s voice is louder, the band go electric and there is very little subtlety involved. Having said that, it’s a good song, one that Martyn would often perform live. It demonstrates how talented a group of musicians he’d assembled for this album, and during the song, the all play really well. Having heard the first three songs, I’d Rather Be the Devil may come as a shock to the system to the first time listener, but my advice is, stick with it, give it a chance, and quickly you’ll come to realize that this is actually a good track.
Go Down Easy starts hesitantly, then Martyn plays the acoustic guitar. After I’d Rather Be the Devil, this is a much quieter, laid back track. Here, it’s just John playing his guitar and singing. The effect is powerful, his lyrics among the best on the album. His playing is crisp and he leaves space between the notes, and his voice gentle, always singing within himself. This is a lovely track, it’s long been one of my favorite tracks on the album. Once you’ve heard it, you too, will agree with me.
On Dreams By the Sea, the introduction has a real funky feel. It’s Simon Pegg’s bass playing that makes you think that. However, when you hear the track, it’s the only funky thing about the track. This track has much more in common with I’d Rather Be the Devil. The sound is much bigger, louder and fuller. Martyn’s voice is louder and stronger. His voice sits at the front of the mix, behind him, his band gradually join the fray. When they do, the effect is glorious. You’re privileged to hear some brilliant musicians at the top of their game. They play around Martyn’s vocal, taking care to never overpower it. It’s as if they’re deferring to Martyn’s genius. Overall, the effect is fantastic, and it’s a track that shows another side to Martyn on Solid Air.
There is another change of style with May You Never. It sees Martyn returning to a much more laid back and downtempo style. It’s just John singing and playing guitar, and like Go Down Easy, the effect is stunning. His voice and playing are brilliant, among the best on Solid Air. The simple arrangement allows you to focus on the beautiful lyrics, as there is nothing to distract your attention. When you hear these lyrics, they demonstrate John’s talent as a songwriter. Many people forget that as well as a brilliant singer and musician, John was also a talented songwriter who wrote numerous classic songs. May You Never was one of these songs, and is one of the best tracks on Solid Air.
An acoustic guitar plays quietly, at the start of Man In the Station, and the song meanders gently, until John sings. His voice starts quietly, but quickly it gets stronger and louder. When it does, the band enter, they too, increase the volume, then, let it drop. It becomes like a game, with peaks and troughs, one minute loud, the next quiet. It’s a beautiful song, which John and the band sing and play beautifully. For almost three minutes you’re treated to John Martyn at his best.
Solid Air closes with John Martyn in blues mode on The Easy Blues (Jelly Roll Gentle Blues). His voice takes on a weary sound, as if he’s live a thousand lives. It’s full of character, perfect for the track. His playing starts of crisp and fast on the acoustic guitar for two-thirds of the track. After the track almost grinds to a halt, it restarts and transforms into a different song. Thereafter, it’s like turning back the clock, a piano plays, it’s bluesy and brilliant. The song opens out and then gradually, winds down, the album over. Latterly, we were treated to just a minute of a very different side of John, one I’d have like to have heard more of. This was a good way to end a classic album.
Having spent a great deal of time recently revisiting John Martyn’s back catalogue, I was spoiled for choice about albums to write about. In the end, I chose to write about what is probably his best album Solid Air. It’s a brilliant album, one that I always love to hear. It’s like an old friend, so familiar it is to me. It’s one of these rare albums, that has no bad tracks. You never once find yourself skipping a track, quite the opposite, put it on, and you’re transfixed, enthralled by its beauty and subtlety. For thirty-five wonderful minutes you’re transported somewhere wonderful, taken on magical musical journey, one that never need end, all you need to do to make it laster longer is press play again. Should you never have heard this album, it’s one that belongs in every record collection. It’s a seminal album, one of the best ever made. To me, it’s John Martyn’s finest hour, the greatest album he ever recored, and the perfect introduction to John’s music. If you just want an overview of his career, a good starting point is Classics released on Artful Records in 2000. John rerecorded some of his best songs on this double album, and it allows a newcomer to his music to hear his best songs. There are plenty of other studio albums and compilations of John Martyn’s music available, and if you read a previous article I’ve written that will give you some pointers on what are the best ones to buy. Whichever ones you buy, enjoy listening to some wonderful music, by an artist who is sadly missed by his many fans. Standout Tracks: Solid Air, I Don’t Want To Know, Go Down Easy and May You Never.
JOHN MARTYN-SOLID AIR.