Album of the Week, November 22: Solid Air by John Martyn

MartynSolidIn late 1971, John Martyn released a masterpiece. After four solid albums of contemporary folk — often tinged with blues or jazz elements — Bless the Weather was a revelation. With stronger songwriting, more experimental vocals, and a much broader musical palette, Martyn created his own jazz-folk sound. After several months of touring with the material, he entered the studio and recorded the single May You Never. Dissatisfied with the result, he regrouped, adding another eight songs  and entering Basing Street Studios in December 1972. Somehow he managed to nearly match the brilliant power of Bless the Weather, creating another landmark album that has inspired generations of  musicians.

Album Solid Air
Act John Martyn
Label Island Release Date February 1973
Producer John Martyn and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Solid Air
  2. Over the Hill
  3. Don’t Want to Know
  4. I’d Rather Be the Devil
  5. Go Down Easy
  6. Dreams By the Sea
  7. May You Never
  8. The Man In the Station
  9. The Esy Blues

The kickoff is a stunner. Dedicated to Martyn’s friend Nick Drake, it’s a jazzy meditation on isolation. With a delicate vibraphone line from Tristan Fry, the song doesn’t sound like anything else in the Martyn catalog. Somehow it also fits perfectly, announcing another burst of creativity and growth.

Over the Hill is a bright kiss-off song, with Martyn declaring his independence from the forces that try to hold him back. It’s the most traditional of the set, with an almost Appalachian feel propelled by mandolin (Richard Thompson), autoharp (Simon Nicol), and fiddle (Sue Draheim). Energetic and engaging, it harkens back to Martyn’s roots without losing any of the creative energy. Don’t Want to Know is a more rock oriented number with a smart piano line. An urgent call for love in a dark world, it keeps the energy crackling. This trio is one of the strongest sequences in Martyn’s catalog, a nice exploration of determination.

The lone cover on the disc is a gripping version of Skip James’ I’d Rather Be the Devil. A surging blues backdrop moves the song along, breaking down into a spacey guitar solo. The musical landscape evokes an underworld journey, then the drums kick back in and Martyn rocks his way out of the song. Go Down Easy is an acoustic number featuring a vocal in Martyn’s highest register. It’s a quiet ramble into a peaceful glade, a romantic idyll that provides a nice antidote to the Devil.

An almost Shaft-style guitar opens Dreams By the Sea, a driving, funky number. With a squalling sax and syncopated rhythm, it conjures up the nightmare images of the title. Martyn’s rapid-fire vocal is flawless and bold. Things calm down with a new version of May You Never, a song that became a staple of Martyn’s live shows for the rest of his life. A charming invocation of well wishes, it’s another nod to folk’s traditional roots. Acoustic but not demure, it features a very different vocal that’s just as effective.

The Man In the Station uses keyboards to create a dreamlike feel. Each verse ends with a smart burst of percussion as Martyn promises to catch “the next train home”. The rapid changes of pace capture the sense of waiting and impending travel, and the band pull the train into the station with enthusiasm. Things wrap up with The Easy Blues, a fine jaunt that would be a standout on most albums but serves more as a coda on this powerful journey.

With the one-two punch of Bless the Weather and Solid Air, John Martyn shattered genres and declared his stylistic independence. He would continue to chart his own course for another 35 years, blending more jazz, worldbeat, synth, and modern rock sounds into the mix. A pioneer and a unique talent, he never released an uninteresting album, but he never quite matched the fire that burned in 1971 – 73.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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