Sean “SJD” Donnelly may never have really troubled mainstream New Zealand’s musical consciousness, beyond the quirky tune or two that were sold for use on television commercials. But over the last decade or so each album he’s released has been critically acclaimed, deservedly so. And this run of superb song writing and production continues with the release of Saint John Divine, his seventh album.
SJD’s prior album, 2013’s Elastic Wasteland, won the Taite Music Prize as New Zealand’s most creative of that year for its collection of dark bedroom synth-pop. But where Elastic Wasteland swaddled Donnelly’s masterfully whimsical and moody songs in claustrophobic and bleak synths and drum machines, for his latest album went into Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studio with a full band, including Finn himself.
The album that’s resulted, Saint John Divine, showcases Donnelly’s songs in perhaps the most produced and confident fashion yet, but with all the warm atmosphere and all the rich arrangements squarely presented in service to the songs themselves.
The album’s opener, ‘I Saw The Future’, harks back to the melancholy beauty of Berlin-era Bowie; a sparse, almost shapeless lament; “I saw the future, summed up in a few short lines”, before a staccato riff of strings ties the track before it shifts into the gorgeous bouncy pop of ‘Little Pieces’. But this smart little pop duet with Julia Deans reveals and revels lyrically in a morose subject matter, of things being pretty messed up, of lovers and friends who let you down.
That’s always been SJD’s way, he’s too smart and too thoughtful to let his lyrics slide into the trite or meaningless, he’s a song-writer first and foremost, as well as a masterful producer of pop and electronic music.
And so it goes with Saint John Divine. ‘Jet Planes’ yearns in a very New Zealand manner for travel to foreign places most of us will likely never see. Strings join Donnelly’s plaintive voice, before in the chorus both strings and voice soar in joy, excitement, as the character Donnelly’s singing through expresses excitement about one day riding jet planes and bullet trains to places you’ll never know, and may never go.
The upbeat, almost-garage rock of “I Want To Be Foolish” comes close to a Lou Reed-like snarl in places, this character Donnelly is voicing want to kick out of the softness of middle age by a trip to the pub and a bit of controlled chaos.
‘Helensville’ perhaps forms the centrepiece of the album; moody and gothic, drenched in reverb-laden guitar which conjures a rainy night away out northwest of Auckland, while Donnelly sings of being left behind, abandoned in a small town. There’s a desperation to the sound, even as the intricate and rewarding arrangements propel the listener forward into the next stage of the tale, in ‘Invisible Man’. Donnelly appears to write mostly in the voices of characters who aren’t him, though might almost be. But, with ‘Invisible Man’ he seems particularly personal as he sings about playing bass guitar in sixteen bands but still no one knows his name.
That’s probably true, however. For despite how good Donnelly is as a songwriter, and how superb each of his albums has been, how respected he is by his peers and by his cult audience, he’s probably never going to get the name recognition afforded the likes of Neil Finn or Don McGlashan – despite being a frequent collaborator with both, and both being happy to sing his praises every chance they get.
Donnelly’s body of work deserves that praise, and Saint John Divine might be his best yet – and being able to surpass the superb chamber-pop genius of 2007’s Songs From A Dictaphone is no mean feat. And, happily, the listener is left with a sense that Donnelly’s not done yet, because Saint John Divine ends with ‘Was I Always Here’, one of the most beautiful string-driven songs you’ll ever here; uplifting spirits and ensuring this album will stick in the mind and the heart as an emotional journey and a musical celebration of one of New Zealand’s finest talents.
Beer match: Well made, touching on “commercial”, but made on a smaller scale and, perhaps too smart and just too good to ever be accepted by a mainstream that likes things simpler. An alcoholic equivalent of Saint John Divine might be found in one of the beers put out by North End Brewing, a small brewery nominally based out of Waikanae (but, at the moment, contract brewing at Panhead in Upper Hutt until North End’s kit is installed and ready to go).
North End’s Keiran Haslett-Moore knows his beer, and knows how to make good beer, and appears far more interested in making beer that is reliably good rather than jumping out to grab the latest trend or to make over-the-top beers featuring outrageous ingredients – just as SJD knows how to write a good song to a particular song-style, without needing musical stunts to sway the audience.
Saint John Divine, then, might be accompanied by North End’s Amber. Like the album it’s almost a mainstream commercial product but – and it’s an important ‘but’ – it’s made superbly, with smarts and personality that result in it perhaps being both too good to ever really break out to be a best seller. But, maybe, one day one of North End’s beers; like one of SJD’s songs, will make that breakthrough. They certainly deserve to.