First Appeared at The Music Box, March 1998, Volume 5, #3
Written by Robert J. Lavigna
Donovan is back, reemerging from candle-lit shadows with Sutras. Issued in 1996 on American Recordings, this is his first release of new material in more than 15 years. And if the work of an artist is an accurate reflection of his spirit, then the Scottish-born troubadour they once called Mellow Yellow is, to put it lightly, feeling all right quite rightly.
There are those who might slip into the facile skepticism currently in vogue at the news of another '60s musician back on the scene. Why not assume that Donovan, like many of his Geritol-popping, chop-fattened contemporaries, just wants (or needs) to cash in on the trend and maybe catch a whiff of glory days gone by?
The music of Sutras stands up to that charge. From the opening notes of the first track, it is evident that higher impulses were guiding the project. Indeed, after listening to the CD a few times, one gets the sense that these songs had to come out, that the artist was their god-chosen oracle without a say in the matter. Donovan wasn't just whistling Dixie when years ago he told us, My songs are merely dreams visiting my mind.
Sutras will never go gold or platinum, precisely because it is a work of integrity and sincerity qualities at which buck-lusting radio program directors shudder with revulsion. Nor was it slung out on the market like something off the grill at McDonald's; it was born, recorded with painstaking care over a two-year period prior to its release.
More significantly, Sutras is the testimony of a man who has remained faithful to his vision. Donovan is a romantic, like it or lump it. The 14-song collection, as we learn from the CD booklet, is dedicated to she. And here he is at his very mellowest, without a trace of yellow, ranging from the deeply personal to the universal. Absent is the swagger of Sunshine Superman, the psychedelic yarn-spinning of The Trip, the whimsy of I Love My Shirt. Instead we discover a man fully receptive to the larger forces of creation, mature enough now to make sense of them. We discover a man at peace, wanting to share that peace and the abundant wealth of his spirit. From some of the titles alone (The Way, Nirvana, Universe Am I), it may seem he is guilty of a holier-than-thou righteousness, yet nothing could be further from the truth. The songs on Sutras are simple, humble declarations of love and devotion.
It is simplicity that lies at the heart of Sutras's beauty. Donovan and his musical entourage turn it way down, relying mainly on acoustic instruments to appease the gods. The simpler the arrangement, the more powerful the song. Pervading the whole is a rare, gentle intimacy, as if the players were giving us a private concert. The melodies transport the listener to Gothic courtyards, Buddhist temples, and at moments to otherworldly realms of light.
In fact, half of the compositions were inspired by spiritual, traditional, or literary sources: the lullaby Sleep; the buoyant High Your Love; The Way, by far the collection's most up-tempo song, in which the Tao Te Ching goes Top 40, complete with groovy electric sitar; the benediction Deep Peace; the ecstatic Nirvana; an aptly emotive rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's Eldorado; and the genteelly sensual Be Mine.
Donovan's primary inspiration is love. It is sacred love, and it is for keeps, as demonstrated in four ballads: the CD's first song, the seductive, chillingly beautiful Please Don't Bend, breathed upon the trickle of his acoustic guitar; Give It All Up, an echo of his hallmark Catch the Wind, down to the winsome cries of his faithful harmonica; Everlasting Sea, a solemn litany of unconditional love; and the precious, transcendental Lady of the Lamp, in which the beatified chants, In his life, in this dark veil/one is really, truly love/and the Lady of the Lamp loves/only me; she is my Grail.
Sutras's crowning gem is The Clear-Browed One, which deserves masterpiece status among Donovan's life work. It is the sound of enlightenment, a sojourn in the glow of the Buddha's smile, most profound, most lucid tranquility. The two final 'sutras' are songs of faith: The Evernow (title self-explanatory), and the prophetic Universe Am I. Donovan is still banking on love: One day when immensity is near/this man will conquer fear/and universe will shine. Could that be the Hurdy Gurdy Man?
In perspective, Sutras shines like a sun high above the festering trash heap that is the contemporary pop music industry. The work is meant not so much to sell as it is to dwell. In a word in any context it is sublime. Fair enough, all this holiness might be too much for the casual consumer. But a poet's business is beauty and truth; Donovan had been away for a long time, but he has come back with the goods. In a world where so much mindless, high-tech cacophony passes for music and singers' blasι whining for wisdom, it is reassuring to know there remain artists who take pride in their work, souls who are courageous enough to follow their heart instead of the herd. The candle still burns. The poet's voice is soft but clear. It is ours to turn to for the listening.
Sutras is available from Barnes & Noble.
To order, Click Here!
1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 1998 The Music Box