While it would be another 20 years before he enjoyed massive commercial success with “Too Many Broken Hearts” and “Especially for You”, Donovan was a leading light in the folk rock explosion of the sixties. He’s often maligned for being overly poppy, and at the time he was derided for over-aping Bob Dylan (an unfair accusation really). But with his folk rock songwriting, all with subtle notes of psychedelia and Eastern music, plus that paisley Oxford shirt and loved-up teen following, Donovan was a true icon of the hippie flower power movement – Eric Cartman would have hated him.
While we remember him now for his big pop-rock hits like “Mellow Yellow” and “Jennifer Juniper” though, it’s easy to forget that Donovan was, at heart, a folk singer. This album captures his evolution from there to more mainstream sixties pop, with traditional ballads mingling with sitar dreamscapes and big band mischief.
Of course the opener, the eponymous “Sunshine Superman” doesn’t really hint at the folkiness to follow. It’s a big hit that sounds surprisingly modern, full of pounding rhythm and thoroughly exciting. Once it ends though, the gentle yet playful “Legend of a girl called Linda” sets the scene a bit more accurately, although the inventive strings and flutes make it pretty clear that Sgt Pepper had his influence here and there, as does the lovely sitar on “Three Kingfishers” and Tim Buckley-ish “Ferris Wheel”.
The next track “Bert’s Blues” is where Donovan stretches his wings a bit more. It’s bluesy and raw, with timpani and Hammond organ combining with a catchy baseline. Dedicated to Bert Jansch, it’s a highlight of the album, particularly when it evolves in the second half to an epic swing finish. On the UK release it’s the last track, which does seem kind of fitting.
“Season of the Witch” is a proper basement rocker of a tune, with exquisite guitar work and a charming bit of Hammond organ that you do have to listen out for. It’s a great track, and became a hit single, and while I was mysteriously reminded of Bryan Ferry a few times, it’s one that I can see myself throwing into a few playlists to come.
If Donovan is accused of being too Dylan, then “The Trip” is the only point on the album where it shows – a jaunty little blues number that wouldn’t feel out of place on “Blonde on Blonde”. That upbeat mood is spoiled a bit by “Guinevere”. Yep, more medieval bollocks I’m afraid, although to be fair it is quite a sweet track.
It picks up again for “The Fat Angel”, Donovan’s tribute to the legendary Mama Cass, which also throws in a nice namecheck for Jefferson Airplane and has some lovely sitar work. The album concludes (arguably) with “Celeste”, a remarkably creative ballad about having a soulmate. It’s warm and captivating and redeems the album’s weaker moments nicely.
While “Mellow Yellow” and “Hurdy Gurdy Man” were to come, this is an album that, while patchy, shows off a talented folk singer with a lot of creativity. Shame he never managed to get together with Kylie in the end.
* It’s worth noting that the original UK and US releases differed quite a lot in track listings, and the various rereleases to follow confused it all the more. This review was based on the original US release, but there’s stuff from other releases (like the sad but serene “Writer in the Sun” and the slightly dodgy rocker “Superlungs”) that are worth checking too.