948 - John Martyn 'One World' (1977)

My Rating: 3.00 out of 5
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die:
Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums: X
The Mojo Collection: X

Chart Peak (UK/US): 54/--

Favourite Tracks: Small Hours, One World, Certain Surprise
Least-Favourite Tracks: Big Muff, Smiling Stranger

John Martyn could sing the assembly instructions to a piece of flat-pack furniture & still move most of us to tears… the man was blessed with one of the richest, most emotive, melodious voices in rock and yet (and I feel strangely-guilty for even saying this) I found this album a little disappointing. There are some patchy bits here and while Martyn’s voice does much to paper over the cracks, it’s not quite the masterwork I was expecting considering its almost-universal critical acclaim.

On the positive front, let’s start with that voice; slurred, anguished and honeyed, like some bizarre cocktail of Michael McDonald, Robert Wyatt & Mark Hollis, it can transform even the most ordinary lyric into something dripping with emotion. There’s not many who could sing a simple line like it’s “just a cold and lonely world, for some” (from One World) and have you snivelling into your hanky. Likewise, how many times have we heard singers trot out a ho-hum corny line like “I couldn’t love you more”, and yet when Martyn does it we somehow get the feeling that he really means it.

Like so many people blessed with great natural talent, Martyn did his level-best to squander his gifts & the lyrics here offer an intriguing perspective on his troubled & often contradictory personal life. Martyn undoubtedly had a gentle, introspective side and that ran at odds with his hard-living reputation (a fact clearly illustrated, according to bandmate Danny Thompson, by the fact he would play something incredibly beautiful, yet burp loudly at the end just in case you thought he was going soft). Similarly both sides of Martyn’s character feature here, from the delicate sentiments of ballads like Certain Surprise & One World to the personal demons of Big Muff & Dealer and in a sense made the album feel that much more authentic & heartfelt.

Musically, the songs sound like they evolved out of jam sessions & while this loosely-structured approach complements the slow, ambient compositions I didn’t think it worked that well for the up-tempo numbers like Big Muff & Smiling Stranger which end up sounding a little unfinished. Both kick off with promising Can-like grooves but dashed my hopes by not really going anywhere special with them. Where Can might slip in a guitar solo or two here we just get far too much vocal repetition and not nearly enough musical inventiveness. It’s frustrating - especially when tracks like One World & Small Hours remind you what a great guitarist John Martyn was.

Small Hours closes out the album & this is where the unstructured, jam-session approach really comes into its own. You can really lose yourself in the ethereal drift of Small Hours, its muffled heartbeat rhythm, the echoing guitar & synth swells, the whispered vocals, the geese squawking in the distance… wait a minute, geese? Well, apparently it was rather fittingly recorded outside in the countryside at night & such ambient sounds only enhance the atmosphere. Almost nine minutes long but I can’t say that I noticed.

Overall a good album, but I was rather expecting more.


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