I’m always looking for a good spin on an article, and a listen to one of the albums below got me thinking about a common theme (perhaps the most common) with singer-songwriters: heartbreak. Oh, there are usually a couple of woe-is-me songs on each such album, but that wasn’t what I was looking for to inspire this article. Every now and then someone gets dumped or fucks up a relationship, and this sends the person into such a tailspin that before they know it they’ve written ten songs on the topic and gathered them together on an album. I mean, that’s a lot of personal agony, and in the wrong hands the topic is pretty hard to take, no matter how sincerely it was felt. There are plenty of very focused breakup albums or albums that have that definite bad-relationship bent (Mitchell’s Blue, for instance). Songwriters who are truly talented and have a gift for wiring their emotions right up to the listener’s own can make a great impact with a collection of such material.
Take myself, for instance, as the audience. I am married to the first woman I seriously dated. Before that, there was a brief period in which a girl thought she was dating me; I was unaware of that fact. Then I dated a girl who I thought I was going steady with, but turns out she’d never really been that interested. That was the sum total of my romantic experience before embarking on the long and mostly blissful lifetime journey I’m currently taking. I tell you this to show that I’m in no way the right target audience to understand these feelings. And yet when I hear John Martyn’s agonized howl over the loss of his beloved spouse due to behaviour he (John) could have avoided, it hits me right in the heartstrings. That, my friend, is what a genius songwriter does — makes you feel all possible emotions, whether you’ve personally experienced them in your life, or not. And that is the power of empathy and compassion, which happen to be exactly what music is purposed for at its best.
So I’ve combed my collection for the best examples of the dreaded breakup album, wherein the singer-songwriter lets it all hang out about his/her lost love, what he/she did to drive this person away and what he/her would do to get ’em back. I’m sure there are hundreds more such examples out there that are considered classics. For instance, apparently Blood on the Tracks has a lot to do with the break-up of Dylan’s marriage, but his imagery is, as usual, so obscure that most of the time I’m hard pressed to see any relation.
But the two albums here, well, they are, from start to finish, bleeding hearts sewn on sleeves, moaning and groaning and roaring and carrying on, but due to the unimpeachable talents of the writer, they are two of the most compelling records in my entire collection.
Martyn is the now-deceased king of jazzy folk; from fairly conventional sixties folk beginnings, he innovated constantly throughout the seventies, adding the spaciness of the Echoplex pedal for looping purposes but also a jazz slur to his voice and a snap/slap to his guitar playing (very similar to Mingus-era Joni Mitchell) that propelled the uptempo tunes and provided drama to the moody ballads. Earlier in his career, his partner Beverley, a talented vocalist, was his musical partner on albums such as Stormbringer! and The Road to Ruin. After she left the duo to raise the kids, she and said kids remained the happy focus of such songs as “Couldn’t Love You More”, “One Day Without You”, “My Baby Girl”, etc.; Martyn was a heart-on-sleeve guy, and his albums were always an accurate indication of what was going on in his private and spiritual lives. His seventies albums like Solid Air, Sunday’s Child and One World are not just incredible singer-songwriter recordings — they are some of the finest in the history of popular music.
From the early seventies onward Martyn formed a touring duo with legendary double bassist Danny Thompson, and by their own admission the pair were classic hellraisers, both on and offstage, consuming liberal amounts of whatever they fancied and generally living the musician’s life to the hilt. While this no doubt made for perfect musical chemistry between the two, it appears to have taken a heavy toll on Martyn’s home life, as would be expected. It’s almost impossible to live the dual life as householder and wandering musician; the mundane, peaceful home life is too great a contrast with the constant stimulation and excitement of life on the road.
Well, by 1979 the Martyns’ marriage was on the rocks, and it was not a happy parting, if this album is any indication. Martyn, fresh from the genre-bending positive success of One World, turned in an album of raw heartache such as has rarely been heard on record — the nerves are hanging out there, waiting to be slapped around. It’s a remarkable album but one that affected mutual family friend, Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, so greatly that he reportedly delayed releasing the album for a while, perhaps assuming that would be best for all parties!
However, we should be grateful that it was indeed released. Stylistically, it actually is a departure that would lead to some questionable easy listening style albums later in the eighties; instead of using a small ensemble based on acoustic guitar and supplementary instrumentation, Martyn now was making softer rock/jazz sounds, albeit often made pleasantly spacy by his abstract vocal style and affection for ambient guitar tones. The tunes are really nice but what makes the album is not the melodies or the playing; it’s the raw emotion that cannot be denied.
“Some People Are Crazy” is not the most auspicious opening track, though it does have a certain smoky elegance, and the uptempo title track has a tense edginess that works. Things get more intense, though, with “Looking On“, which is a classic Martyn acoustic song in his seventies style, a jazzy, loping, spacy number over which he slurs about love “stealing in/With an innocent grin/Leave you staring at the empty ceiling/Feeling nothing.” There’s some pretty sweet Rhodes work in there as well. A well-chosen reggae cover, “Johnny Too Bad”, makes sly reference to Johnny Martyn’s own failings; he knew he was “too bad” to keep his relationship smooth.
It’s the second side where the pain starts to poke through into the songwriting, and it’s the one-two punch of tracks 5 and 6 where Martyn really makes us hurt along with him. “Sweet Little Mystery” is one of his best-known and most tuneful songs, basically a tasty soul song but with an ache to the storytelling that is more than palpable: “It’s not the crying, in the dead of night/That keeps me hanging on, just waiting for the end.” It’s the sound of a broken heart that feels it will never mend. “Hurt in Your Heart” stabs even harder, with Martyn’s vocal reduced to a moan of pain over impressionistic backing: “When that hurt in your heart has gone/Just say my name/You don’t have to say it loud/I’ll still feel the same/I’ll still be true, waiting for you.” Simple words, but it’s the delivery that hammers them home.
The rest of the album keeps up the emotional pressure in the strangely frenetic, synthy “Save Some (For Me)” (with a big presence from Phil Collins on backing vocals; he’s all over this album), which introduces a note of defiance (“With the way I live I’ll never be alone”) and the bitter summing up of “Our Love”, which “once was deeper than the darkest blue could be/Now I find/I have to search my mind/To find the smallest trace of you in me.”
Grace and Danger is truly a trip into the personal hell of a mind ripped apart by longing, belying the sweetness and smoothness of the music that accompanies the journey.
In contrast to the romanticism of Martyn’s perspective, we have the typical forthrightness of cult singer Peter Hammill, best-known for his work with aggressive prog-rockers Van der Graaf Generator. (Read my article for a summary of what makes Hammill special as a singer and lyricist.) In 1977 Hammill’s relationship of several years went kaput, and Peter was never one to disguise his emotions — and never one to waste the opportunity to mine them for material. While Martyn’s personal agony is expressed through bitter-sweetness and longing, Hammill’s turns to rage and self-hatred on this album, which, if Grace and Danger is to be considered raw, takes things to a whole other level — this is meat hacked straight from the bone.
Hammill’s vocal style has always been based on sudden transitions from a whisper to a scream, from sweetness to harsh cacophony, and this album holds true to that technique. However, the music is generally quite minimally arranged; some songs contain a rhythm section but many are just Hammill’s vocal accompanied by guitar, piano or elegiac strings, leaving nothing else for us to focus our attention on but his hurt.
Opener “Crying Wolf”, however, is a hard rock song propelled by a riff that’s almost metal. Right off the bat, Hammill’s pointing the knife at his own heart, ridiculing his own feelings of self-pity: “You take all the love and throw it aside to wallow in your sorrow, expect everyone to know how you feel inside.” As an act of self-flagellation, it has few equals.
Don’t expect things to get happier. “Autumn“, a musically pretty ballad for piano and strings, features the soft-voiced version of Hammill, musing in a gentle but vicious fashion on the lives of empty-nesters whose children are gone, and now they are left confronting their own faulty relationship and their mortality. Gee, thanks, Peter.
“Time Heals” doesn’t offer much hope of that happening; the lengthy set of lyrics that muses about betrayal and the dubious genuineness of feelings of love indicates that healing wasn’t too near. Nor does the tense acoustic song “Alice (Letting Go)” indicate that Hammill was letting go any time soon — he’s singing directly to his lost lover, revealing his faults but hers as well: “Oh I had my chance and I’ve blown it, ’cause I loved you so much all these years/And somewhere in myself, between my pride and fear/Just couldn’t find a way to show it” and “I suppose you say to him now/’I know that some day you’ll leave me’/Just like you did to me.”
“This Side of the Looking Glass” again relies on strings and the soft voice of regret as a brief respite before “Betrayed” brings back the vitriol of the lover scorned in favour of another man: “It seems there’s not an ounce of love or trust anywhere in the world.”
Again, he directly addresses his situation on “(On Tuesdays She Used to Do) Yoga”, a ballad for acoustic guitar and sudden startling shots of bass synth. On this one Hammill once more rips his own heart out as he examines his failings under a harsh microscope and finds himself terribly lacking.
At last, after dissecting himself and his relationship so brutally, Hammill ends with a little smidgen of hope in what is quite a lovely song (that also features musical elements borrowed from a VdGG number), “Lost and Found“. More immediately melodic than the other songs, it features lyrics that are downright inspiring after all the preceding mordant invective: “… one moment of perfect passion/Is worth a lifetime of remorse/So it’s no more empty promises/And no more idle threats; No more ‘if only’s’/And no more ‘and yet’s’; No more wishes for the future/No more denials of the past; I’m free at last/I’m in love at last/I’m lost and found.”
And this is what some people don’t get about Hammill’s work; rather than offer a panacea of smooshy, inspirational thoughts that only go so deep and merely conceal our scars, Hammill’s work, much like Camus’, unmercifully lays bare the bleak existential reality of the human condition and the lies we tell ourselves to try to avoid coming to terms with meaninglessness and mortality. In doing so he provides a foundation on which we can then build an honest life based on real truth and real emotion.
Over is an essential example of his skill in this regard.