Rating: 3.75/5Donovan Leitch has always been a hard one to pin down. His reputation is firmly fixed in the 1960s, which we are told were a crazy and strange time, man, but even then, he seemed to be just a little out of sync with his peers. While seemingly every dude with a guitar was dropping out and turning on, Donovan was disavowing hallucinogens and getting into (and notably, staying into) transcendental meditation. He was taking his leads from Woody Guthrie before it was made cool by a certain other protest-singing beatnik, and stayed fascinated with strands of Indian music and mysticism long after the quiet one from the Beatles popularized it. In short, he’s too famous and influential to really be considered a cult artist, but too obscure and rooted in another age to have the cult of personality developed by the most vital icons of the ‘60s.
So where does that leave Donovan? More to the point, what to make of The Essential Donovan, a 2004 compilation album being re-released and expanded for the singer-songwriter’s imminent induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? A brief glance at Donovan’s Wikipedia page shows over 60 compilations that have already been released, beginning all the way back in 1966, when his career had essentially just begun to make international waves. It would not appear that there is any dearth of collections of Donovan’s most well known songs, so The Essential Donovan touts the inclusion of four tracks “previously unissued on CD in the U.S.” as its primary selling point. But what that really highlights is that it is a compilation primarily for devotees, who would be the most likely candidates to have already tracked down those songs. What, then, is the necessity of The Essential Donovan?
The answer is a fine, organic display of Donovan’s songwriting and remarkable, rapid stylistic growth. While the length of a double disc, 36-track might intimidate some newbies, The Essential Donovan is masterfully curated, with each track placed in precise form and order to break down and illuminate how quickly Donovan grew as a musician and performer. The tracks vary from singles in both stereo and mono formats, extended plays and live cuts, with inclusions from 1965 to 1973, generally considered his most fertile years. They begin with the hits that had him internationally compared with Bob Dylan, “Catch the Wind” and “Colours,” and it’s not particularly hard to see why. Both are the kind of acoustic, sand-paper voiced songs influenced by traditional folk melodies that caught public imagination in the early ‘60s, and time has relegated the rivalry between Donovan and Dylan to parallel evolution and influences rather than imitation.
His real creative leap took place barely two years later, when his famed collaboration with producer Mickie Most produced psychedelia like “Sunshine Superman” and “Season of the Witch,” two of the most culturally saturated songs included here. Any listener who’s ever listened to a classic rock radio station will have heard his most pop-oriented material, but tracks like “Young Girl Blues, ”Get Thy Bearings” and “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond” reveal more of Donovan than either the strummer or the flower power aesthete. Even tracks like the cartoonish “Mellow Yellow” and “Atlantis” (forever darkly tinged by its association with Goodfellas) expand on the popular perceptions of the singer, particularly as aided by key 1960s session players like Jimmy Page, Jack Bruce and Big Jim Sullivan (a few of whom might have become mildly famous in their own rights).
But in the end, do we need another Donovan compilation? Through no fault of his own, he has been packaged and re-packaged for virtually his entire career (label contracts have hobbled him for decades) and his hits are iconic enough to be familiar to even casual listeners. The saving grace of The Essential Donovan is its remarkable flow and organization, working as much as a primer for new fans as it attempts to appeal to the kind of listeners who would devote time to tracking down obscure Donovan tracks. We don’t need another compilation for the Sunshine Superman, but if you’re going to get one, it should be this one.