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For better and worse
Donovan gets boxed
Related Links

+ Donovan's official Web site

+ Donovan's box set press release

Donovan has finally gotten a definitive box — Try for the Sun: The Journey of Donovan (Epic/Legacy) — so it’s time to give him his due. Often dismissed as a lightweight Dylan for being too airy-fairy and too embarrassing a relic of the hippie era, he was, when he was good, both distinct and representational, a performer who ingested and then reflected the temper of the times. And if his two best releases, Sunshine Superman (’66) and Mellow Yellow (’67), are period pieces whose pleasures give off a musty smell, the same could be said of Sgt. Pepper. A lot of rock was proudly adolescent, but Donovan, who comes to the Somerville Theatre this Sunday, sometimes gave the impression of wanting to remain prepubescent, and his vague evocations of wonderment in unicorn land had the sickly ambiance of an over-heated nursery. That was just one aspect of his persona, however. He was also a Beat poet in the guise of a seductive crooner, and if he was never as deep as he seemed to think he was (and that alone would make him a good spokesman for his generation), he could still be a lot of fun.

This set emphasizes the early stuff, with two discs devoted to his classic period, a third showing him sliding into obscurity, and a fourth, the now obligatory DVD, offering a lame documentary from 1970 with Donovan traveling in Greece, serenading the locals and offering bits of bubblegum philosophy. It’s almost enough to dissipate the good will built up by discs one and two. Anyway, there are 60 tracks, 12 previously unreleased songs, and a non-critical but informative liner essay by Anthony DeCurtis. (Who’d have thought that Donovan’s breathy close-to-the-mike style was an idea he got from listening to Buddy Holly?) It’s the familiar arc of the boxed overview, early success and a wellspring of invention followed by a less-inspired winding down.

Donovan begins his journey as a mellifluous folk singer offering plainspoken songs of love and protest ("violent hash smoker shook a chocolate machine" from "Sunny Goodge Street" does foreshadow some of the more baroque lyrics to come) and possessed of a knack for memorable melodies. At his peak, which arrives quickly in ’66 and ’67, he constructed a musical vibe that was ahead of the zeitgeist curve, a pop-rock-folk fusion that sounds like nothing before or since. A signature Donovan song tempered rock-like aggression with a light touch; the best of it was delicate music with a spine. "Sunny South Kensington," for one, cobbled together so many then-contempo influences that it couldn’t help sounding sui generis. But eventually the keepers were outnumbered by the inanely wispy, and for every song that reminds us what a clever boy he could be (e.g., "Epistle to Dippy," "Hurdy Gurdy Man"), there’s a handful where the preciousness is layered on with abandon and the results are just too bloody twee.

As for the latter part of the journey, Donovan seems content to have become a seasoned veteran singing snoozy songs about love with nary a trace of the originality that made him seem if not hip then at least groovy. When he was good, he could hook you with a song that still seems vivid 40 years later. When he wasn’t so good, he just disappeared into the æther.

Donovan | Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville | Dec 4 @ 8 pm | 617.931.2000

Issue Date: December 2 - 8, 2005
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