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SJD: Songs from a Dictaphone
Reviewed by Brannavan Gnanalingam
IT WAS 2004’s Southern Lights that helped establish Sean James Donnelly’s reputation, following on the release of his excellent debut 3, and the following Lost Soul Album. Southern Lights was an introspective wee gem of an album – feelings of loneliness and confusion trapped beneath layers of electronic mastery and fragile melodies. Songs from a Dictaphone is SJD’s follow-up, and on the surface appears a brighter affair, more acoustic in its feel, with hummable (but slightly off-kilter) melodies to the fore. The album is lyrically dark, as Donnelly tries to grasp his position in the universe, and sees him grappling with faith, life and love. If anything, this album should be purchased by any self-respecting music fan, and helps confirm Donnelly’s status as national treasure.
The title Songs from a Dictaphone feels slightly wrong but accurate at the same time. Lyrically, it feels like we’re privy to Donnelly’s musings on life, the type of things people think about when having a quiet night in alone. And in this respect, the dictaphone imagery is apt. But the overall sound is lush, complex and as skilfully arranged as an SJD fan would expect – hardly the connotations the title conjures up of albums like Springsteen’s Nebraska. The first track – the curiously (if slightly naff) named ‘Bad Karma in Yokohama’ sounds like it wandered out of Bowie and Eno’s Berlin studio, with its industrial pounding and handclaps making for a curious juxtaposition. But the clashing sound makes way for a delicate melody during the chorus that conjured up (for me) a child looking at the sky for the first time and noticing the stars. SJD makes “a wish upon a satellite”, a sense of wonderment and seems to express Donnelly’s fear over feeling so small in relation to the universe. Perhaps the manmade satellite could provide a sense of comfort as it competes against the stars?
The next track was the Spanish sounding ‘The Last I Saw of Maryanne’ with its slightly sinister melody and subtle pizzicato strings which has Donnelly wondering if we are “chords in a symphony of miraculous design // or merely incidental notes in an accidental life.” It’s a beautiful track soaked in nostalgia, dragging memories and the past into something Donnelly can’t quite seem to figure out. ‘I Wrote This Song For You’ has a rather upfront melody, a funky bass and synthesiser, and purposefully tinny drums. It epitomises the direction musically of this album – the melodies take less effort to discover (this is probably the most accessible SJD album), with all the layers playing away in contrast to the approach Donnelly has taken in the past. The fourth track ‘Black is a Beautiful Colour’ is a little beauty with its memorably catchy banjo-esque picking and joyous brass. The lyrics have a slightly self-reflexive quality to them in this song (and in ‘I Wrote This Song For You – well, the title does suggest so), if not quite evoking the tortured artist, certainly comes close. The lyrics obviously don’t evoke communication or connection.
The fifth song continues this alienation with ‘Jesus’. Lyrically the song fits brilliantly into the album’s structure though musically this neo-gospel number is probably the album’s weakest track. It does form a loose religious theme triptych though as Donnelly goes searching for something else to explain his position in the world. ‘I am the Radio’ is a rather playful (and blasphemous, if that’s your thing) track about “God listening to the radio” and eventually “singing on the radio”. These two religious themed tracks build up a rather relentless pace – this track feels most like the bridge from Southern Lights and this album with a hummable melody and a dense production that threatens to envelope it. ‘Lucifer’ continues the religious musing, with Donnelly almost evoking a Romantic conception of the Devil (you kinda feel like he’s been reading Paradise Lost and empathising with Satan like all the Romantic poets), but with a much more pensive tone musically. It’s also Donnelly’s most vulnerable vocal performance, there’s a rather strong uneasiness about this song, eventually heightened by the snarling strings.
The next song takes that old song-writing cliché – the disco inferno – and turns it a rather pointed and humourous piece of sneering. “I got this ass and I can’t make it shake right?’. For all his dissatisfaction with the “straights looking dire”, “the smart folks acting dumb”, and the “adman’s vision of heaven and hardcore”, this is ironically something that could happily fill the dancefloor with its rollicking rhythm and upbeat bass-lines.
The aptly titled ‘Beautiful Haze’ is the album’s turning point as Donnelly appears to embrace his position in the world. There’s almost an apathy to the way he shrugs off mindnumbing work and dull everyday (despite his Martin Luther meets Karl Marx imagined rebellion). This is Donnelly coming through the religious and societal uncertainty of the album and thinking “the universe is mostly fine with me // it seems to be the only place to me”. Another beautiful melody awaits with ‘Forty Flights Up’, a Don McGlashanesque performance, as Donnelly finds himself reconciling with the past and with the elements. The final song is a wonderful summation of the journey Donnelly seems to have undertaken in this album – he makes a connection with a lover, and they drive off like Sal Paradise. Where to? “Just don’t ask me, I don’t know // Can’t see past the end of the road”. Having travelled through the confusion and soul-searching of the album, all this introspection doesn’t matter anymore to Donnelly. He’s come to accept the mysteries of the everyday and the present, and it’s all good.
This is a truly wonderful album. Even if his meditations on everyday life don’t grab you, there are the gorgeous melodies and instrumentation that surely must. This is a musician in full control of his craft, and is the type of intelligent pop music that continues to reward the listener with repeated listens. This deserves to go down as one of New Zealand’s classic albums.