No surprises here: A Scottish folkie sounds far more natural when he stays near the Isles (“Gold Watch Blues”) instead of crossing the Atlantic (“Car Car”, “Keep on Truckin'”). When he’s playing breezy and light, I’m rather fond of his cottony hum, but he’s not sure enough of himself to avoid the wrong side of the tracks just yet.
This fixes the debut’s identity crisis (no more Woodyisms here), but as Donovan moves towards a more cohesive persona, I’m not sure it’s one I’m fond of. Between the rather flat melodic sensibility and a striking lack of lyrical projection, he doesn’t supplement the soothing tone with much. That is, except for a couple flights of fancy that too rarely tether to less ephemeral currents.
Sunshine Superman (1966)
I’m impressed: Donovan’s genre alchemy is a year ahead of the game and far more deliberate to boot. Too bad gentle streams of sitar and harpsichord can only mask so many faults. Leitch still struggles to shape his tunes towards an end, and unless he makes the bold move of abandoning the pop format, our acid beatnik’s need for direction will only grow.
Though I prefer restless introspection to cafe cool, Donovan makes a strong case for each with this sudden maturation, breathing in both cases with a cloudy distance that lends depth to the double-dipping arrangements. Their folk and jazz strains tend to mingle throughout, but “Hampstead Incident”‘s blatant merger of the two shows the brands of brooding to be nowhere near as dissimilar as they seem.
You may never find a more level-headed release from 1967.
A Gift From a Flower to a Garden (1967)
For about 20 minutes, this is essential: escapist psych by way of folk-jazz, a dazzling union of Sunshine Superman and Mellow Yellow, and a riveting argument for blissed-out daydreaming. If I held lingering doubts of Donovan’s ability to make innocent whimsy palatable, they’re long gone now. Complications arise, however, when he treks down from his high and out into the wild, where forest locales rekindle old struggles with formlessness. Fortunately, the trips to the shore have a rowboat pulse perfect for centering his slippery sigh, and both settings highlight just how deft Leitch’s touch is.
In other words, the man’s restraint continues to astound.
The Hurdy Gurdy Man (1968)
The two triumphs here are almost entirely musical: the opener, with liberal amounts of guitar distortion, and “Get Thy Bearings”, featuring one of the most sublime sax riffs this side of the jazz world. By discounting the compositions, I don’t mean to belittle the tracks; they’re fine pieces of groove. But their presence makes it all too concise and too clear that Donovan’s not here—at least not in the sense we’re used to. Verve seemingly exhausted, he stiffens into the empty cheer always hovering near his orbit while Most’s arrangements lose the poise that helped Leitch fashion solace from the shakiest of sand.
It’s as if Donovan has decided to parody himself: The cutesy hooks play like cheap dairy, Most responds with unwavering chintz, and the bizarre fixation on crowd singalongs act as flashing arrows to Leitch’s flimsiness.
Open Road (1970)
Donovan fronting a rootsy, chest-thumping Rock Band makes little to no sense, even considering the winds of change blowing at the turn of the decade. His down-home drawl isn’t any more convincing than it was on the debut, the Pope gets by with an “edgy” critique bordering on juvenile, and attempts at invoking a Celtic past are equally thin. When so much of your album trades in flaccid Americanisms, it takes a lot more than misty buzzwords to supply an air of authenticity.
HMS Donovan (1971)
If, as I presume, the abundance of sub-2-minute songs is due to attention deficiencies in the target audience, why on earth would you put them on something so interminable? Even if children appreciate the numbing repetition, there’s no way they can stand over an hour’s worth of it; and for us grouchy grownups, we’re much less likely to be enamored with the image of, say, men peeing like dogs.
Cosmic Wheels (1973)
While the sequel to HMS Donovan‘s “Pee Song” is repulsive in all the expected ways, part of me finds it preferable to the inane posturing that constitutes the rest of this. Starting with ponderous riffage and ending with platitudes galore, Donovan throws himself into an earthy space-hippie pose as if his career depends on it. And that’s the tragedy: Even though there were tussles with vapidity as far back as The Hurdy Gurdy Man, it never felt as if Leitch had permanently lost his way. Now that he has returned to the ever-gaudier Most out of commercial necessity, self-parody seems to be all the man’s capable of. Which, of course, portends both a continued lack of success and evermore slavish releases in the pursuit thereof.
Essence to Essence (1973)
See, just when I thought Donovan had lost it completely with dunderheaded consciousness (cosmic, social, and otherwise), he reconnects later on with the unhurried hush of his glory years, even tinging it with some Ochs-like weariness (“There Is an Ocean”). Then he turns around and blows the momentum on reggae dabblings, falsettos, and moralizing, none of which come close to justifying the shift.
What a tease.
In spite of my initial reaction, I’m willing to defend 7-Tease‘s eclecticism from accusations of desperation. Spend some time with a few of the quieter numbers and shards of Leitch’s dippy charm emerge, restating why he’s worth keeping around in the first place. But for those of us hoping he’ll return to calmer waters, well, there are chart holdings to reclaim. And where blinding earnestness can be endearing when it’s just you and a guitar, necessity-driven overarrangements move the needle far closer to daft.
Sales slump aside, admirable fan service is still only that. In a world where “Black Widow”‘s sullen (if silly) beauty stands as the exception to empty slogans, sweet nothings, and political panaceas, I realize how far the base has moved—to the point where I’m no longer a part of it.