John Martyn died back in 2009, but he spent his last eight years writing and recording what would be his posthumously released final album. I saw him perform at Shepherd’s Bush Empire during this period. He had gained a lot of weight and seemed to be wearing a muumuu. He performed seated, as his right leg was amputated below the knee. He seemed somewhat drunk. Despite Martyn’s physical appearance, the concert was magical. From the very start, his fingers created entrancing and exotic melodies that transported the audience to a higher plane. While he spoke in a mumble, when Martyn sang, the sound of the words offered enchantment. He received a standing ovation at the end that he gruffly acknowledged as if he did this type of thing all of the time. Who knows, maybe he did.
The provisional title of his last release was Willing to Work. Whether this was ironic considering the length of time it took him or straightforward in regards to the effort he put into it is unclear. The title of the song by that name is an eight-plus minute rambling sonic excursion that ends up with a dog barking, and the band seemingly looking for direction. Martyn repeatedly riffs on the phrase “Willing to Work” as if it is a mantra that will lead him somewhere, but he appears to have lost his way. Still, the song has its charms. One has the feeling that if only he had lived long enough, Martyn could have turned it into something better and more complete.
The disc is now called Heaven and Earth and the song of that name is a much more beautiful and finished product. The over-seven-minute piece incorporates a gentle jazz piano and tenor sax that provide an emotional lift to the proceedings. Martyn passionately sings of “moving heaven and earth” as if it is simply a matter of spiritual will. He laughs gently as he vocalizes, as if he is being tickled by the feelings welling within him. Martyn’s glee makes one smile along with him.
As a whole, the studio album bears traces of roughness around the edges. Martyn’s voice in particular can be creaky, especially on such tunes as “Colours” and “Heel of the Hunt”. Other times Martyn can still rock out, especially on the funky “Stand Amazed”. The grit in his voice serves the bluesy vibe and lends an air of authenticity to his back porch musings. The Band’s Garth Hudson accompanies Martyn on a honking accordion on this track.
Martyn wrote all the songs but one, his friend Phil Collins’ “Can’t Turn Back the Years”. Collins sings backup on this melancholy look at how one cannot correct life’s mistakes, but just go on. This four-minute cut may be the shortest one on the album; however, the depth of feeling expressed gives it a feeling of weight. It’s as if Martyn and the now retired Collins are telling listeners that their careers may be over. They are not going to apologize for any missteps. They take ownership of the good and bad they have done.
Judging by Martyn’s last album, he has nothing to apologize for. The results may be shaggy–a feeling reinforced by the length of the songs–but he still has much to offer. Hopefully he is in heaven now,. He left this earth with more than he took with him. His music enriches.