Allow me to enter this one into the sub-genre of Good Crap Albums known as The Heartbreakingly Crap Albums; allow me first to perhaps invent said sub-genre, to name it at least. We all know and have an album or two like this right? We know deep down it’s not great but our allegiance to the artist means we are there for anything they do.
John Martyn – I sometimes believe I couldn’t love him more. Man. What a voice. What a player. What a deep spirit. And wrapped up in all of that is the fact that he was a mess. A deep conundrum of alcohol abuse, fear and sadness. A little man that made himself smaller through the phoney bravado of drinking and what it did to him. A traumatic sufferer of the abuse of addiction. He was a walking contradiction. And then he lost a leg to the drink and couldn’t even be that. Such a sad case.
The folk stuff, the records with his then-wife, Beverley, and of course the majestic Solid Air. And in and around all of that the wilful experimentation – always. There was gentle, beautiful stuff in the 1980s and there were always little clues he was losing his way, or put differently, he sometimes managed – through it all – to find the path again.
He all but retired in the early 00s and took some eight years to put together this – eventually released as the posthumous album that bumbles and bats with legacy, lining up with all the dignity of a drunk at an ATM. It’s more One World than Solid Air. But of course it’s not as cohesive as One World – albums like that really showed the magic touch within the madness.
Heaven and Earth was originally going to be called Willing To Work – some sort of perverse joke perhaps. Or was it the staggering conviction of the staggering drunk; dying and broke and desperate he was still going to turn up and report for duty. At any rate its actual title tune is the first real proof that there’s some traces of the beguiling beauty that Martyn could occasionally place his fingertips on.
This album is recorded at home, it is patchwork and it opens with a cartoon voice that is so off-putting as to be absurd. But a couple of songs down into it we get the man that was wheelchair-bound and on his way out singing about moving heaven and earth. He is parched and sounding more like Robert Wyatt than he ever did. The songs are sprawling – they aren’t really tunes, they’re expressionist paintings in music. The jazziness that was always there in the way Martyn phrased his version of folk music can still be felt. This patchwork isn’t a patch on his best work. But you can feel the effort – when it’s there – from a man who wasn’t always there.
Most of the songs are originals and there are dark, weird moments (Gambler) that are largely successful. There are also longwinded cliches that are only tolerated because of everything he did ahead of this or at least because of selected highlights (Stand Amazed).
And then in the middle of it – a cover of a Phil Collins song. A lesser known Collins composition. Can’t Turn Back The Years. Phil is on the track singing backing vocals – it was recorded around the time that PC was facing his own retirement, unable to hold drum sticks and in failing health. They two musicians had a long history, were friends, had worked together. Say what you like about Collins – as both player and notorious grump – but he turns up for the people he cares about. There’s recorded proof of that, so it’s inarguable. His own version of Can’t Turn Back The Years is nice, it’s one of the under-appreciated gems from later in his solo career but here it is rewritten by the crag in Martyn’s voice, by the amber in his veins as he yearns through this, chewing on both the sentiment and the lyrics.
What was going to be the title song is now just the final track – Willing To Work. It’s a sprawling mess. Which is a slightly cruel but not inaccurate way to describe Martyn in his final years.
Heaven and Earth is heartbreakingly crap. It’s not even close to the best work this genius musician offered. But it’s a record I return to – one of the most honest career-codas. This is what he was capable of, what he reduced himself to. You listen to this head in hand, face covered by fingers that want to protect you from some of the horror. You peek through the gap in those fingers and you glimpse some of the magic. The old familiar traces. Ravaged by time, alcoholism, disease, disgust and wilful self-destruction. You couldn’t love the best of John Martyn’s work more. And he seemingly couldn’t love himself enough.
Shit That’s Good! Crap Albums I Love is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks