Review Summary: Donovan's psychedelic masterpiece. A milestone in 1960s psychedelia.
Donovan was still in the midst of finding his sound with his first two records, but by his third, entitled Sunshine Superman, he clearly defined his trademark psychedelic style. Up until that point, he was limited to your standard folk music, probably drawing some comparisons to Dylan that tarnished his image at the time. Well, that changed quite a bit with Sunshine Superman, which happens to contain some of his best work.
First off here, if one were to compare this record to the two that preceded it, he or she would first notice its striking instrumentation. Compared to the sparse, more guitar/harmonica-based instrumentation of his last two, Sunshine Superman is a groundbreaking (for Donovan, at least) display of a variety of very unusual choice in instruments, including sitars and harpsichords. Yes, it seems strange to have Middle-Eastern instruments on pop songs that aren't "Norwegian Wood", but they really work quite well in this context.
Anyway, the album kicks off with one of Donovan's biggest hits, which would have to be the title track. Most people familiar with Donovan already know this one, probably because it's been on every one of his compilations and most "Best of the 60s!" compilation albums. Still though, it's a great cut. It's also pretty neat being able to hear some of Jimmy Page's session work prior to his Zeppelin career, even if he's actually playing for probably only ten seconds. Regardless, it's definitely one of the more psychedelic tracks on this album, and probably one of the most memorable.
The album loses its up-tempo feel as soon as the next track begins, which is the almost-seven-minute "Legend of a Girl Child Linda", an acoustic number featuring only Donovan, his acoustic, and a small section of strings and winds. I'm not entirely sure as to what the lyrics are actually about, but I do know that his love-interest at the time was named Linda, so some lines in the track could very likely be referring to her. That aside, there's definitely a medieval feel to the lyrics. Without question, the guy was deeply fascinated with these medieval themes, as nearly every song on here revolves around them. And the ones that don't are usually about acid.
The next two songs follow in the footsteps of the last, still very mellow and medieval. "Three King Fishers" is probably the most Middle-Eastern tune on here. I've never been entirely fond of the melody, but it's still a decent listen. Same goes for "Ferris Wheel". They're both good songs, but they pale in comparison to some of the other stuff on this record.
"Bert's Blues", is definitely a standout on the album. It's easily the bluesiest tune ever written by Donovan up until "Barabajagal", and it works really well with the instrumentation. Lots of hand-drums and harpsichords, which is nothing unusual for this record. Also, there's an astonishingly good baroque-style harpsichord solo around the 2:20 mark that solidifies the track as one of Donovan's best. And for those who are wondering, the title alludes to acoustic guitar guru Bert Jansch, who had a notable influence on Donovan as well as Neil Young, Jimmy Page, and Paul Simon.
Side two opens with another big Donovan hit, "Season of the Witch". While I've never been particularly fond of the song, it is considered to be one of the first psychedelic songs and was pretty influential at its time. I've always felt that it clashed with the rest of the album because it's so standard sounding-it could have been done by any other big folk guitarist from the mid 60s. It just doesn't showcase the unique instrumentation that makes the rest of Sunshine Superman such an animated album.
Moving on, we then have "The Trip", which I've always thought was very similar to the title track, probably just because of their similar subject matter. This could be evident by the fact that it was the B-side of the 1966 Sunshine Superman single. Anyway, it's another great song full of subtle LSD references and such. Great.
"Guinevere" slows down the tempo a bit, and reverts back to the infamous medieval themes of Donovan's limitless imagination. Nothing new on this track, but it's good, nonetheless. It's very consistent, and a bit more exciting than some of the stuff on the first side.
The penultimate track is "The Fat Angel", which is known for name-checking Jefferson Airplane, another psychedelic band that actually released their debut album the same month that Sunshine Superman was released. Interesting. But all in all, it's another consistent track from Mr. Leitch.
The closing number happens to be possibly the best on the entire album. "Celeste" is the closest thing to a ballad on Sunshine Superman, and it happens to be a very charming one. The lyrics explain that it's always much easier going through tough changes in life if you have someone to go through them with. While most probably already know this, it's nice having Donovan tell it to us with his intriguing wordplay. To me, this is not only the perfect album closer, but the true gem of the record. Lots of beautiful melodies and instrumentals compressed into a four minute pop song. It really is a remarkably great song.
So, all in all, Sunshine Superman was Donovan's strongest music effort at its release in 1966, and quite possibly one of the best albums of the scope of his career. It's the only album of his that captures his signature psychedelic sound in full form. While there are a couple of clunkers on this collection, there isn't anything that stands out for being exceptionally weak. Every track is certainly worth a listen, if not multiple. Unfortunately, this album was overshadowed by other big names from its time (Beatles, Dylan), but its musical quality and lasting appeal is not at all diminished by it. Give it a listen.