The adjective “timeless” is too often tossed around recklessly when describing music that transcends the era it was released in. But that’s the perfect description of late UK singer-songwriter-guitarist John Martyn’s 1973 masterpiece Solid Air.
Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, Martyn’s most radical and memorable album sounds as fresh, innovative and powerful today as when it was unleashed on an unsuspecting public three decades ago. Audacious, hypnotic and groundbreaking only begins to describe Martyn’s still unique combination of folk, jazz, blues and space rock, wrapped around riveting, unforgettable melodies. Perhaps most startling though is how Martyn alters his vocals with phrasing that slurs words together with a baritone growl as if awakening from a particularly gruesome nightmare, delivering lyrics that remain compelling and wonderfully cryptic.
Although “Glistening Glyndebourne,” a selection from 1971’s Bless The Weather, indicated a move in this direction, Solid Air jumps into the ethers with help from subtle use of vibes, synthesizer, sax, congas, violin and mandolin. But it’s Danny Thompson’s supple double bass, given a much higher profile in the mix than most players of that supporting instrument, that underpins these intoxicating songs; driving and molding them into mini-masterworks which extend past Martyn’s Brit folk beginnings into oblique, unexpected, often dark spaces.
The title track is a cautionary message written for his friend Nick Drake who passed away from an anti-depressant overdose 18 months after the album’s release. It combines Martyn’s acoustic percussive guitar strum, vibes, sultry sax and Thompson’s rubbery bass for a noir excursion whose inherent underlying danger underscores the chill out groove. As if to hedge his bets on this new direction, Martyn follows with the rootsy folk of “Over The Hill” that along with the gorgeous, never saccharine romanticism of “May You Never,” perhaps his best known composition due to Eric Clapton’s cover, hews closely to a more conservative approach.
Yet it’s the dynamic blues of “The Easy Blues” pushed into jazz by Thompson’s elastic and driving bass and the extended, six minute sonic adventurism of Skip James’ “I’d Rather be the Devil (Devil Got My Woman)” that edge the music into electrifying and previously unheard territory. Bubbling percussion, echoed guitar, and Martyn’s growled, somewhat garbled vocals create a haunted shape-shifting jam that moves into avant-garde terrain far removed from traditional folk structures. “… Devil …” is the album’s centerpiece and indicative of his audacious change in direction. That continued on his second album of 1973, the nearly as impressive Inside Out. Solid Air’s evocative and haunting cover art, symbolic and suggestive of its contents, adds a perfect finishing touch.
To acknowledge Solid Air’s lofty status, Universal released a deluxe version in 2009. The second disc in that package shows live, demo and alternate versions of these songs that display the time and care Martyn, who also co-produced, took to craft this barrier breaking music. It’s well worth the few extra bucks, but in any form, this is an extraordinary and yes timeless work that remains ripe for rediscovery.