Sunday, November 22, 2015

Donovan - Donovan's Greatest Hits (1969)

So much of the psychedelic music of the 1960s was all about expanding consciousness and awareness.  And then there was Donovan.  Donovan's lighthearted lyrics never made any profound statements.  All you ever really learned from him was that first there is a mountain.  Then there is no mountain.  Then there is.  
Donovan's greatest-hits compilation, released in 1969 and comprised of tracks produced by Mickie Most, presented the Scottish singer/songwriter as a whimsical sort, gleefully singing about love and contentment and going about as if his songs could turn people on.  He came across the sort of the myopic hippie minstrel Mel Brooks satirized in The Producers, and many listeners understandably found him ridiculous on the verge of being annoying.  But you know what? Donovan's detractors are missing something.  His music, more than his lyrics, is well-thought-out and pretty durable.  It gives his songs have an irresistibly carefree feel to them, whether he's declaring his desire for a woman in the jaunty "Sunshine Superman" or creating drama with the biting electric textures of "Season Of the Witch."  Even his more innocuous songs, like "Jennifer Juniper," with its mannered reeds and a lilting melody suggesting a sort of mod parlor music, make you want to hum along.  At his most ridiculous - "Mellow Yellow" may be one of the most meaningless songs ever written -  Donovan is good for a laugh.  Except when you hear him cavort with Paul McCartney and carrying on about saffron and electric bananas, you're laughing with Donovan rather than at him.
Donovan was originally influenced by Woody Guthrie and other American folk singers, and for awhile he was actually compared to Bob Dylan, but even though he abandoned work songs and political statements for lightly orchestrated ballads and moody acid-rock workouts, he never lost his desire to be musically innovative.  Donovan's Greatest Hits makes the case for Donovan as an artist willing to take chances with his music, which is notably evidenced in the spellbindingly kaleidoscopic "Hurdy Gurdy Man" and the haunting "Lalena." And there were times when the words matched the brilliance of the arrangements.  Elements of Dylan's influence in the ballads "Colours" and "Catch The Wind" (re-recorded for this album due to contractual issues involving the original versions) reveal an adept understanding of the old folk ballads that drove Donovan's imagination in the first place.
In a more cynical and sober time where Donovan's music is heard as a trippy throwback to the "flower power" age, the inherent naivete in his songs still annoys people.  When Donovan beat out a hip-hop duo for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012, one rap-loving music critic said a duo that could produce such innovative rap rhythms and arrangements didn't deserve to lose an induction vote to Donovan.  Oh yes, they did.  Because Donovan not only produced some memorable music, he inspired others to do so; the guitar fingerings he showed John Lennon and Paul McCartney at an Indian ashram in 1968 led to the writing of most the songs on the Beatles' White Album.  If that's what flower power leads to, then more power to the flower in Donovan's garden.
(Note: An expanded version of Donovan's Greatest Hits, released in 1999 with additional material, includes his epic singalong "Atlantis," inspired by the silly myth of a lost continent that too many hippies believed in until Jacques Cousteau disproved it.  It's silly, it's self-indulgent, and it's clearly the product of too much marijuana.  It's also one of the greatest records ever made.)    

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