John Martyn - One World - Review
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critics' view

One of the only disappointing aspects of Nick Drake’s posthumous appreciation is the fact that very few of those who have discovered his music have looked further and sought out the music of his contemporaries from the late 60's/early 70's folk scene. Of course, many of these had bigger followings at the time, but now – whilst Drake’s legacy is thriving – some of them are in danger of being forgotten. Drake’s early death left a neat body of work, and Drake completists probably only need the 5 official releases and perhaps only two or three bootlegs, whilst those who survived much longer have enormous catalogues, harder for the newcomer to digest.

John Martyn is one such figure. His earliest music is rather similar to Drake’s but he has had the opportunity to evolve his sound in a way Drake never did. Martyn was a friend and contemporary of Nick Drake’s and described the interestin him after death, “disappointing and rather sickening, frankly”, going on to say how “it fucking doesn't do him any fucking good now. When he was alive and kicking, no cunt wanted to know about him, nobody wanted to listen to his music, nobody played it on the fucking radio. Soon as he died all the fucking little pseudo-intellectual ponces come creeping out of their garrets in Hampstead and all the rest of it, trying to get hold of his fucking ethos, falling in love with the 'poor boy' image”.

'One World' was recorded and released in 1977, a time when the singer-songwriter boom of the early 70's was an increasingly distant memory, obliterated by the more buzzy thrills of punk. Or, at least that’s what history tells us! In fact, from reading press cuttings and small magazines published at the time, many people were rejoicing at the prospect of new albums from Bowie, Neil Young, Roy Harper and even Spirit! On this record there are still hints of his folk background, but this album seems very much in tune with much of the music of the 70's, incorporating elements of folk, jazz, soul, rock and reggae into an eclectic mix. It is an album on which each of its eight songs is different from one another.

It was recorded in three weeks by Chris Blackwell, and has provided something of a haven for completists with plenty of alternate versions available on bootlegs from the sessions. Martyn admitted that he chose Blackwell as producer because he was a close friend that he could trust, and he realised that he had lost the confidence to realise what was his best material. Blackwell, therefore, chose all the tracks for the album with Martyn simply contributing his ideas, hence all the outtakes and rejected versions.

All the evidence suggests that Martyn was far from being a happy, contented man when he recorded this album. He described his reliance on drugs to block out the misery of working in “a totally heartless industry, which is dependent on falsehood for its survival”. He had been away for a sabbatical, although the break he had between 1975’s 'Sunday’s Child' and this album would be considered standard today. The anger inspires the record, and each of Martyn’s performances are, like the lyrics, edgy and intense.

On the first half of the record, 'Dealer' and “Smiling Stranger' are both driven by funky rhythms and very embellished production, typical of the era. It is Martyn’s voice that rescues the tracks; he has a strange, soulful voice that veers between a whisper and a shout. You find that it takes little time to get used to, and it is his unique voice that allows the album to veer so radically between musical styles and still sound consistent. The stand out track on the first side is the most gentle. "One World' is a sad story about how so few people are able to find their true place in the world, and as he repeatedly sings, “it’s just the way of the word”, there is a terrible sense of resignation. But the arrangement is beautiful, as are his vocals.

On the second side Martyn digs out his acoustic guitar for 'Couldn’t Love You More', and his vocals are even more impassioned than they were on the first side. The album’s strongest song follows .Certain Surprise', a loose jazzy song that reminds me a little of Van Morrison, but with a catchy chorus and some gorgeous acoustic guitar work and one hell of a Trombone solo. 'Dancing' doesn’t fit into any easily classifiable genre. It seems to me to have a reggae vibe at its core, but it is loose and a really strong track, perfectly suited to its title. The album ends, appropriately with 'Small Hours', which is over eight minutes long and is largely instrumental, very slow and atmospheric. It’s not the best song on the album but draws a close on it nicely.

'One World' is certainly a contender as John Martyn’s best album, and has not one weak track. Of course, there are plenty of other strong records in his catalogue, and really he is someone who is best appreciated by tracking the development of his music, rather than just listening to one album. Having said that, I think it is nigh time that 'One World' was recognised as being a great album. If you are looking for a flawless album to listen to in a relaxed setting, with inventive songwriting and tremendous musicianship then you wouldn’t be let down by this gorgeous album.

Benjamin Howarth
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