If this album, Salutation Road (his third) doesn't sell, maybe Martin Stephenson will sit by his stereo, playing it many times, wondering why. ''It's so fine!'' he'll groan. And he'll be right.
Rarely has any young artist especially one who never traveled more than 10 miles from his home in the English countryside until two years ago, when he was 27 moved with such deft assurance through so many styles. This is one of the most polished, most admirably serious albums released in quite a while. It's partly folk and partly rock, with both genres blending into jazz, R&B, and sometimes Latin music and New Age. There's even one cut, ''Migrants,'' in the pre-rock, pop standard style you'd expect from Frank Sinatra.
The songs are carefully shaped, and thoughtful, too: ''Migrants,'' for instance, is about an awkward moment that taught both Stephenson and his father a lesson in kindness. But there's a problem; you'd never know what the song was about unless you read Stephenson's description in his record company's press kit. His lyrics are hard to decipher.
His singing, meanwhile in a cautious, reflective voice a little like what Bob Dylan's might be if Dylan had developed conventional vocal skills is too restricted to convey any sense that something urgent might be at stake. Nothing jumps off the record, seizing your attention. That's too bad, because if the music were just a little more assertive, this would be an album to treasure.B-