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John Martyn: Sapphire/Piece By Piece

Overlooked mid-period twosome given a fresh airing.

Island Records’ prodigal son returned to his favoured label for these mid-80s releases, relatively unloved upon their release and having fared unfavourably with the passage of time. The memory of his guitar-centred output already fading fast, and any remnants of guitar had been so heavily treated as to be indistinguishable from the tidal wave of synth layering that saturated the ever-so-contemporary production, underpinned by the now naff Linn drum machine.

After initial sessions in Nassau threatened to implode, Robert Palmer stepped in to save the day, adding stability if not edge to proceedings.

Although comparisons to Sade and China Crisis wouldn’t be wide of the mark, it’s the dip in the quality of songwriting that really puts Saphire (610) on the back foot. Only the standouts Fisherman’s Dream (the bonus disc includes the shelved version with the Scottish, in contrast to the gospel version on the album) and Mad Dog Days made the cut in future set lists.

A similar remit, production-wise, was applied to the follow up, 1986’s Piece By Piece (710), but greater craft, sophistication and boundary pushing makes it a far more satisfying listen.

Opener Nightline is a quirky slice of neon-lit twitchiness with similarities to Eric Clapton’s Forever Man, and on the ominous John Wayne Martyn slurs a vehement diatribe against his ex-manager with the righteous menace of a man wronged.

It’s Martyn in a nutshell: fire and brimstone never too far from the beauty and heartache./o:p