Saint John Divine
Round Trip Mars
Sean James Donnelly has, as SJD, created an incredible catalogue of work. He started out as a laptop cut’n’paste collage guy, bringing heart (and his smarts) to electronica, but for the last decade he’s been evolving under the singer/songwriter handle; always with the flourishes and textures of electronica, and more recently a more determined electro-pop. His music has frost and edge and tension, his voice always has calmness, nearly an ethereality to it. And inside the songs you can hear Bowie and Krautrock, dance music and Robert Wyatt, he’s so well versed in the serious – and seriously good – songwriters that we almost forget just how impressive it is that Donnelly is exactly that himself. And has never once repeated himself. He’ll circle back in on an earlier sound, his previous album, 2012’s Elastic Wasteland returned him to the computer-based world, and this, his newest, and finest, has hints of the start of that golden run of really great record-making, 2004’s Southern Lights and particularly 2007’s Songs From A Dictaphone.
Critically acclaimed – and with an embarrassment of riches, song-wise, Donnelly’s last decade of work is actually extraordinary when you consider it. Add to his solo efforts the fact that he’s been a crucial component of work by Don McGlashan and Neil Finn, among others. And you can hear, particularly in songs here on Saint John Divine, the influence of those great writers. Just as you can hear a little of the SJD sound and approach (particularly in that special way he has of knowing just how to frame and place a song) in the recent output of Finn and McGlashan. Across Jet Planes and Unplugged here Donnelly taps into a vulnerability and emotionally honesty that perhaps hasn’t always been as instantly noticeable in his music. It’s here that we can hear some of the sound of this late-period Neil Finn. But it isn’t all introspective. I Wanna Be Foolish is a mid-tempo pop-rocker with a riff fashioned out back in the woodshed, a little twist and turn of Velvet Underground in there.
The weight of these songs – supported by shimmering strings and presented in a hymn-like quality – is intoxicating, Saint John Divine is its own world, an immersive experience, a complete record, crafted, each song a chapter in the book, paragraph in the story. And if Elastic Wasteland and Dayglo Spectres (albums I love, by the way) were slightly cynical, jaded, Saint John is the sound of SJD recovering, returning to, rediscovering his heart. These songs are instantly believable – this record something to be sure of on first listen. And then it only gets better from there. The gorgeous glide of opener, I Saw The Future. The subtle enormity of closer, Was I Always Here. A song that could be a life’s work. The lushness of the arrangements, smartness of the lyrics and correctness of the melodies, all there. As always. But where, previously, and even this was the case with Dictaphone, it could sometimes seem a teeny bit academic, a bit like an exercise, Saint John bursts with a pride and fullness that is so real, so huge, so beautiful in its boldness.
Saint John Divine is the album of SJD’s career. He won’t beat it. Can’t better it. But just watch. That’s been the case with every album so far. A new one arriving to knock the previous of its perch.
One day someone will find a way to convey the true meaning and worth of this extraordinary body of work. New Zealand is so lucky to have him. There’s really no one doing it any better than this.