Her second solo album and first release in 16 years, finds the 66 year old in perhaps not surprisingly reflective frame of mind as, working (by computer magic) with former Counting Crows bassist Matt Malley and ex-Los Lobos drummer Victor Bisetti, she revisits past times and unfinished business.
Although she and the late John Martyn finally divorced in 1980, after his womanising and drink and drug induced mood swings made him impossible to live with, she never remarried and retained the surname (she was born Kutner), something that says much about their relationship rather than any career decision, after all, she retreated into privacy and her No Frills debut didn’t arrive for another 18 years.
It’s those mixed memories of their time together that inform the warm, melancholic, country-soul ‘Women & Malt Whisky’, where she recalls how “Davey was your hero, Bobby was mine” and that excess of the title “will lead to to your grave”, and quite possibly also the equally country flavoured acoustic mid-tempo stroller ‘Jesse James’ (which features some tasty guitar work from producer Mark Pavey), where the narrator talks about how the titular meanest man lone wolf “rode into my heart last night”, even though she thought he was dead and gone. It’s worth noting that the album title is taken from Shakespeare’s allegorical poem about the death of ideal love.
The past weighs heavy throughout. ‘Potter’s Blues’, a song about recalling childhood inspired by the late playwright’s Blue Remembered Hills, originally appeared on No Frills, the spare and tender reflective ‘Sweet Joy’ was the very first song she ever wrote and both ‘Going To Germany’ and ‘Levee Breaks’ were numbers she used to perform with jug band The Levee Breakers, when she was still a student way back in the mid 60s. Both traditional blues, the former was Don Partridge’s 1969 follow-up to ‘Breakfast On Pluto’, though backed by understated slide guitar, Martyn’s is a far bluesier and more world-weary reading, while the latter, more properly titled ‘When The Levee Breaks’ and immortalised by Led Zep, was first recorded in 1929 by Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie. Echoed by brooding electric guitar, Martyn gives an earthy, gutsy performance, deep and resonant in comparison to the sometimes cracked nature of her voice (a little Marianne Faithfull?) when she attempts a lower register, as on ‘Mountain Top’’s portrait of isolation and loneliness and the bluesy, marching beat strings-accompanied ‘Nighttime’, another song that likely harks back to the turbulent marriage as she sings “I’m still trying to forget you” while adding, when she’s sad and lonely, “won’t you come to me .. I need your hand to hold”, threatening that she’ll find someone else “who’s got some love for me”.
Of course, the song that’s got everyone excited is the opening ‘Reckless Jane’, a number she began writing with Nick Drake (who used to babysit for her and John) shortly before his death in 1974, and which she’s only recently been able to bring herself to complete. Being honest, even with Martyn’s polish, initially sparked to see how many rhymes with Jane they could come up with, it’s not going to rank among his finest compositions, but, atypically Drake, its wistful, pastoral images of lost love and hidden pain are counter-balanced with a sense of acceptance and even joy, an air reinforced by the restrained piano and guitar notes and a lovely, light touch string arrangement in the classic style of Robert Kirby.
The inevitable interest in the song is something of a bittersweet blessing, somewhat detracting attention from the album per se and the engaging warmth and honesty in Martyn’s voice and writing, but hopefully those who may be attracted to it out of curiosity will discover an artist who has shown that, while it may have been silent for sixteen years, her talent remains undimmed.