By the time SJD – Sean James Donnelly – released Songs From A Dictaphone he had made three previous albums, though many would not have heard his first album since it was a limited edition CD-r type thing; eventually out in the world again for all to hear (3) and it’s a very different thing…
His second album was his first album-proper, if that makes sense. The announcement. Lost Soul Music came out when I was in the middle of my second run working in a music store. It was a good time to be in music retail and an interesting time for Kiwi artists; people were popping up with a full career track-record behind them; they’d been in bands for years, or had worked with others, they had something – and now they had an album or two that a record label was releasing. It didn’t feel like that (very often) in the years previous.
And if Lost Soul Music announced Sean Donnelly as a skilled bedsit-producer then its follow-up, Southern Lights, was the one that really showed him to be a great singer and pop-song composer as well.
This is my way of saying that it didn’t – at all – start with Songs From A Dictaphone. And it sure didn’t stop there either. There’s been three more albums since, all brilliant in various and beguiling ways, 2008’s Dayglo Spectres, 2012’s Elastic Wasteland and 2015’s Saint John Divine. Each of these is easily my favourite SJD album whenever I listen to them.
There’s been movie scores, a shot at touring as a solo singer/songwriter, the musical glue in Neil and Sharon Finn’s Pajama Club project, the return to being a bass player in a band (lending himself out to Delaney Davidson and others) and most recently an intriguing set of “Miniatures”– a bunch of 60-90 second pop-song starters; there’s another volume of them to come soon. (“Short songs for short attention spans”).
But right there in the middle of his career – the hinge, I think – is Songs From A Dictaphone.
When the album was released I spoke to Sean on the phone. A 700-worder for the Listener was all that was required from that conversation. And I was chuffed at the chance. And I hope I delivered.
And while it’s never a shock to find that musicians actually like music and listen to a lot of it – it’s reassuring when they can articulate it so clearly and passionately, and when their knowledge runs far deeper than a handed-down set of prescribed influences they’ve been media-trained to mention.
I’ve since talked to Sean a couple of times over a phone line for a piece of written work – I’ve also sat down with him to talk through all of these albums and more for my podcast – and I’ve met him at various gigs for a quick-hello or a bit more a chat. He’s very much a scholar and a gent.
But when I returned to Songs From A Dictaphone most recently I had to wonder – as I’m sure Sean has too, though it would not do him any favours to admit it in public perhaps, it’s just not the done thing: How on earth did this not make him world famous? (Even just the world famous in NZ-kind?)
This is so much a case of All Killer/No Filler that it plays, now, like some Greatest Hits compilation; and at least half a dozen of Sean’s very best songs were written and recorded way before or long after this album. So it’s not at all a case of suggesting that this was the peak and it was all downhill after or only a hard uphill slog before…it’s just the mark of quality of this album that it could stand up to many career-gathering compilations by other artists.
Donnelly here assembled a phenomenal bunch of songs, not only that an amazing cast and crew to assist – he made a pop-rock drummer out of Chris O’Connor. Sure, Chris was amazing before this – mostly as a jazzer – and had worked with Don McGlashan. But now, flash-forward a decade or so and O’Connor is in-demand working with the Mockers, Phoenix Foundation, McGlashan, SJD, Delaney Davidson, Barry Saunders and filling in with Nadia Reid. To name a few. He is the gold-standard. Any band is instantly lucky to have him. The music flows through him. You can see him feeling it. And I’m not saying that Sean Donnelly discovered that in Chris O’Connor. But he knew it. And Songs From A Dictaphone is a platform for it.
It’s a platform, too, for talented musicians Sandy Mill and Victoria Kelly; often members of the live SJD band – and crucial in their support and application to this and other music that Sean has made.
It’s a caring crew. These are sometimes fragile, utterly beautiful songs (The Last I Saw of Maryanne, Lucifer). There’s both brutal and brittle funk to this album at its very best (Jesus) and if you want big pop anthems there’s I Wrote This Song For You and I Am The Radio (both celebrations of not just music, but of writing/creating music). There’s also the perfect balladry of Beautiful Haze, which has withstood a well-earned place as the soundtrack to an advertising campaign to continue to be a profound and wondrous piece of music. In the very best way with music I seem to know exactly what this song is about as I’m listening to it and then I go to talk about it with anyone and I have to just play it to them. Why should I try and sum up with Sean Donnelly is saying when he and his band can do it so much better. (And, shit, if we were ever to really get a national anthem that spoke for the majority in this country, Beautiful Haze should be it…)
That’s actually the throughline in his work – it became harder to write about Sean’s material with each new album. He seemed to suffer for critical acclaim. Sure, there’s no real market for music this good now anyway, in that no one pays for music – and if you do you’re called a mug by someone that allows an algorithm to be their chip’n’dip accompaniment.
But he never put a foot wrong. And yet it was diminishing returns – even when there were record buyers. And so raving about each new release started to almost feel disingenuous. Like you were preaching to a shrinking choir. I can only imagine how the man felt on the stage.
Songs From A Dictaphone is a clever title too – suggesting a hiding place or storage portal for the songs. We will never know what magic got them to the dictaphone, what years of graft, experience, heartbreak and hope. But we got to hear the result of them being captured there and then lifted to the next stage.
It’s also a reference – surely – to Leonard Cohen. In the sixties and seventies he was the bedsit-songwriter; a gold standard. His albums were called things like Songs From A Room and before that Songs of Leonard Cohen – and then after that Songs of Love and Hate.
Donnelly seemed to arrive in the late 90s and early 00s as the electronica version of a Leonard Cohen-like bedsit writer. Listen, buried deep, on this album of magic and miracles and you’ll hear a song called 40 Flights Up. Just as its intro fades you’ll hear the sort of fingerpicking pattern – both rhythm and melody all at once – that drove those early Cohen masterpieces.
Stay for the closer, Two Bodies. Just when you thought you’d heard enough perfect songs – you’re given one more. If you were to play this album in reverse order you’d be sure this was the very best. You’d arrive at the newly engineered-end of the album (ie: the beginning) and you’d hear Bad Karma in Yokohama very differently. Its cool bass, keyboards and handclaps signalling a new beginning. The way each new song and any new album by SJD feels like that.
I really feel like Songs From A Dictaphone is a masterpiece. In a perfect world it would have the deluxe vinyl reissue treatment. It would have bought Donnelly a house and every song would have been licensed in a way similar to Moby’s Play.
The great trick of this album though is the huge heart that you can feel in the spaces between songs. And then in every single track.
When The Last I Saw of Maryanne plays in my house, or car, or wherever I am when it’s in my ears I have to take pause. I almost weep. I think I’m listening to one of the very best songs anyone ever created. You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron
You can support Off The Tracks via PressPatron