Donovan – Mellow Yellow

Donovan-Mellow_Yellow

Part I: The Background

1966’s Sunshine Superman saw Donovan really come into his own as a songwriter and as a leader of the psychedelic movement. Mellow Yellow sees him stepping even further away from his folk roots and capturing a wide variety of mid-sixties pop flavours. Like the album that preceded it, Mellow Yellow wasn’t released in the UK due to the dispute between Epic Records (his then current label in the US) and Pye Records (whom he was still signed to in the UK, and who also had distribution rights for his material in the US via Warner Brothers).

 

Part II: The Music

Mellow Yellow: The title track is one of Donovan’s best-known hits, and for good reason. It’s a catchy pop tune with a mellow vibe that lives up to its name. The songs revolves around a pulsing guitar riff that seems to bounce along playfully—the drum beat, despite its straightforward nature, manages to feel loose and unconstrained rather than rigid. Donovan strikes upon another great melody with this tune, and his sly whisper of “quite rightly” is a hook in its own right. And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the “electrical banana” mentioned in the song allegedly refers to a vibrator. RATING: 9.5/10

Writer In The Sun: The woodwind section that begins this baroque-pop influenced track is breathtaking in its wistful serenity. Donovan paints a bleak picture of an artist reminiscing about days gone by: “The days of wine and roses are distant days for me.” Donovan’s knack for poignant psychedelic imagery in his lyrics really shines through, with phrases like “I ponder the moon in a silver spoon” and “Lemon circles swim in the tea.” Everything about this track—the lyrics, the arrangement, the melodies—evokes a melancholy sense of nostalgia. RATING: 10/10

Sand and Foam: One of the more folk-leaning tracks on the record, “Sand and Foam” transports the listener to the exotic landscape of Mexico. The song is technically about a past romance (“I dug you digging me in Mexico”) but the lyrics instead focus on the various things going on around the lovers, like submarines surfacing, grasshoppers creaking, and a girl trimming a lamp. The bare arrangement consists of just Donovan and his acoustic guitar, allowing his lyrics to shine through as he once again uses a poetic flair to draw the listener into the scene. And of course, as always, his vocal delivery draws your attention—one particularly alluring line is as follows: “Sitting in a chair of bamboo, sipping grenadine.” RATING: 6/10

The Observation: Donovan the cool cat. This song has a real beat poetry vibe to it—most likely due to the jazzy arrangement. In fact, the arrangement is the real draw here; composition-wise, this isn’t one of the more memorable tracks on the album. But when a song’s got a strong vibe, and that vibe has such a slick execution, you can’t help but vibe along. Donovan’s lyrics here consist of various sketches of the American lifestyle as he takes a page out of Ray Davies’ book, focusing on the mundane monotony of the everyday. RATING: 6.5/10

Bleak City Woman: This song’s got all the attitude of the previous one plus a great tune to back it up. At first, the song seems to have a bit of a Bob Dylan influence (think Rainy Day Women #12 & 35), but at its core, it’s really entrenched in jazz. The only drawback is that Donovan’s voice is a little too soft and sugary to really be taken seriously over a track like this—perhaps that’s part of the reason he’s unfairly remembered as a lightweight pop singer, despite having tunes like these. RATING: 9/10

House of Jansch: Another acoustic folk tune, this one with a bluesy feel. It’s not unappealing sonically, but the song lacks a distinct hook—even the chord progression seems to meander. The lyrics here prove a challenge to parse—the singer seems to want to connect with a girl and be a father to her child (so in a way it’s a love song to both the mother and the child), but then you’ve got lines like “Dragonfly he sleeps till dawn” and “Crystal ball is what I wish for you” that require a great deal of interpretation in order to relate back to the narrative of the piece. RATING: 5.5/10

Young Girl Blues: Easily the best track on the album from a lyrical perspective, “Young Girl Blues” is a haunting depiction of a lonely young girl. While “Mellow Yellow” had a seemingly nonsense lyric that may have been tied to sexuality, Donovan touches on (no pun intended) the subject of masturbation quite explicitly here: “Yourself you touch / But not too much / You hear it’s degrading.” The song’s downright depressing—the subject of the song lives an empty life without any meaning to it, drowning in the shallowness of her social circle, with friends who strive to live a life in the limelight. It only becomes clear towards the end of the song that the singer is being critical of the girl who doesn’t fully realize just how miserable her life is: “If you had any sense / You’d maybe go away for a few days.” RATING: 10/10

Museum: Jimmy Page plays on this (and he’s not the only Zeppelin member to play on this album—John Paul Jones contributed to the title track). “Museum” is a safe, simple pop song. It was covered by Herman’s Hermits; I think that says everything you need to know about it. Well, almost everything. This is a shameless rewrite of “Sunshine Superman”. Seriously. Sing the lyrics to “Sunshine Superman” over this—it fits perfectly. RATING: 4/10

Hampstead Incident: This song’s got both a descending chromatic bassline like AND a harpsichord, so you already know I love it. It shares a chord progression with “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, but unfortunately the melody isn’t quite as strong. But this songs boasts the most fully realized arrangement on the album, featuring a wailing string section that underpins the song’s melancholy mood. RATING: 8/10

Sunny South Kensington: Unfortunately, this isn’t anywhere near as good as the track preceding it. “Hampstead Incident” would’ve been a brilliant album closer. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad track. It’s another upbeat, observational track with a nice groove to it. But does it deserve to be the album closer? RATING: 6/10

 

Part III: The Album

Aesthetic: The album cover, which portrays a woman peering at the listener through what is effectively a window, is satisfying in its own right (even if the beige that makes up the backdrop is a little bare), but it doesn’t effectively capture the varying moods of this album. Ditto for the title—naming the album after the poppy title track would have served to move copies but not to solidify Donovan’s reputation as a serious artist. The production on this album, however, is stellar—you get that pristine mid-60s sound here. SCORE: 3/5

Artistic Merit: The highs here surpass the highs of Sunshine Superman, and Donovan’s music reaches new depths here both in the arrangements and in the lyrical quality. It’s a shame that the album is overshadowed by a straightforward pop tune, because there’s so much more here worthy of recognition. SCORE: 4/5

Flow: As a whole, the album doesn’t hold together quite as well as Sunshine Superman. The sequencing isn’t terrible—it’s more that this album’s a cluster of tunes that don’t really fit together in any meaningful sort of way. The album’s a pleasant listening experience straight through, but you wouldn’t lose anything if you put the album on shuffle. SCORE: 4/10

CLOSING REMARKS: As a songwriter, Donovan was on par with many of the lead innovators of the 60s, and this album is proof of that. This is really a transitional album—we see Donovan steering away from the sounds with which he’d established his career and seeking a new voice. And though there’s a little fumbling along the way, this album isn’t one you want to overlook.

FINAL SCORE: 71

 

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