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On the Cobbles

John Martyn

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Album Review

Martyn's first album of new material in four years might be short (around 45 minutes), and one of the tracks has appeared before ("Baby Come Home," which was on a tribute to Scots singer Frankie Miller), but it's eminently satisfying, especially when you take into account that most of the vocals and guitar work were laid down after Martyn had his right leg amputated in spring 2003. He revisits his own past with "Go Down Easy," which was originally on Solid Air, although in this guise it's barely recognizable, transformed from an acoustic frippery into a meandering, atmospheric electric piece (this version was originally recorded in 1992 for a ballet). To the joy of longtime fans, there's plenty of Martyn's acoustic fretboard work on On the Cobbles, although it's not as prominent as it was in the '70s. But the free-and-easy love song "One for the Road" is a joy, as is the wistful "Back to Marseilles." A couple of guests do show up: Paul Weller on "Under My Wing," (arguably the best song Weller never wrote) where the former Jam man sounds nervous in the presence of the Big Man, and Mavis Staples roars on a cover of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene," although Martyn really doesn't need her help, putting forth a large, extremely soulful sound himself. His voice is the central thing here, and it continues to become a glorious instrument, slipping and slurring like a tenor horn, and fashioning beautiful lines. That's nowhere more apparent than on the album's two key tracks, "Ghosts" and "My Creator." The former is a meditation of mortality, full of trademark Martyn phrases and ideas, but executed with glowing restraint. "My Creator" is a kind of creed, truly words to live by, and the spiritual heir of "Solid Air." The jazziest cut on the album (former foil Danny Thompson plays double bass on it), it's dominated by horns to create an atmosphere of midnight blue, with Martyn wafting over the top in an irresistible manner. While On the Cobbles might be worth the price for that cut alone, the whole disc is a testament to a man who will never go gently into the good night.

Customer Reviews

A musical album with rich mature heartfelt lyrics and complex but captivating musical arrangements.

Martyn may well be best remembered for his seminal 1973 album Solid Air but, at the risk of alienating some, this work is an equal to any of his earlier output. Although his voice is manfully gruff and sometimes growling this last studio album is deeply tuneful rejecting the electronic and repetitive drumming of the 1980’s style, which produced Grace and Danger in collaboration with Phil Collin.

Out on the Cobbles is as sad and melancholic as any of his early works, but age had perhaps gifted Martyn with a sense of ease and even a gentle acceptance of mortality that gives this album as sense of hope and celebration. The opening track featuring Baby Come Home penned by Scottish compatriot Frankie Miller is ironically typically John Martyn, emotional and plaintiff. Darker themes are developed in the title inspired track Cobbles where Martyn’s voice has an almost threatening and deeply real quality.

Working again with the redoubtable bassist Danny Thompson a reworked Go Down Easy, which appeared on the 1971 Bless the Weather, is rich and new with a massive sonic landscape of rolling and intertwined instrumentation. The mood shifts to the jauntly and uplifting One for the Road which has a sing along quality that is both humorous and elemental, with themes of water and wind coupled to Martyn’s typical lyrical fascination with the concept of home and return. Paul Weller guests on Under My Wing, although not essentially, he supports Martyn unobtrusively.

The final Ledbetter duet Goodnight, Irene with civil rights activist Mavis Staples is light, atypical and perhaps unnecessary, but whilst we may remember Martyn as a solo artist this track is a reminder that he first found artistic success with his then wife Beverly in 1970 with the Road to Ruin. Some thirty four years later Martyn has given us a musical album with rich mature heartfelt lyrics and complex but captivating musical arrangements, one of his best and sadly his last.


Born: 11 September 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, England

Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Years Active: '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s

Singer/songwriter/guitarist John Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy on September 11, 1948, in New Malden, Surrey, and raised in Glasgow by his grandmother. He began his innovative and expansive career at the age of 17 with a style influenced by American blues artists such as Robert Johnson and Skip James, the traditional music of his homeland, and the eclectic folk of Davey Graham (Graham remained an influence and idol of Martyn's throughout his career). With the aid of his mentor, traditional singer...
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On the Cobbles, John Martyn
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