The Essential Donovan (Epic Legacy)

Apr. 20, 2012
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Back in the '00s, Donovan was treated to an elaborate Legacy reissue, a four-disc box set covered in purple velvet. The new two-CD Essential isn't as lavish and while inevitably duplicating tracks, includes several selections previously unreleased in the U.S. or unavailable on CD. None of those rarities change the picture of Donovan, but unlike many tracks passing for bonuses on other reissues, they add to the pleasure of hearing the collection rather than burden it with shabby baggage.

So what can we make of Donovan nearly 50 years on? Most of the Essential selections represent a prolific four-years (1965-'69) of almost incredible creativity—a uniquely framed mirror image of an unusually fertile time in popular music and culture when revolution rather than evolution was the rule. With great leaps occurring every other month, Donovan went from the straight-up folk of “Catch the Wind” through the proto-metal of “Hurdy Gurdy Man”—the latter recorded with half of what became Led Zeppelin. Donovan was comfortable in the blues (“You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond”) and in flirting with India (“Ferris Wheel”).

While he began his career with impressions of Dylan, there was already a Scottish lilt in the air and a distinctive vision soon became clear. Literate and finding joy in the world, thoroughly modern yet familiar with things unknown in the modern world, Donovan suggests what might have been if Yeats had come of age in the '60s and set up shop in Swinging London. His bejeweled words and gorgeous orchestrations adorn some of the era's most elegant pop recordings. But as the world kept turning, Donovan was left behind. Judging by the Essential's slender handful of tracks from the early '70s, his inspiration flagged as the decades changed. Even so, he made more great recordings in four busy years than most recording artists in a lifetime.


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