To me, Donovan Leitch often got a bad rap. Consider Bob Dylan’s sneers toward him in the documentary Don’t Look Back — and the bizarrely off-base perception that Donovan was a poor man’s Dylan when, except for a brief folk phase early in his career, Donovan never tried to be.
Instead, the Scottish singer-songwriter — just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, btw — was a musical explorer and innovator, from his trailblazing forays into pop psychedelia (Sunshine Superman, Mellow Yellow) to his surprisingly robust rock bolstered by mates such as Ron Wood and Jeff Beck (Barabajagal) to his flower-child’s tuneful tenderness (Wear Your Love Like Heaven) and sunny peace-and-love optimism (Jennifer Juniper).
Quite simply, Donovan was and is Donovan — his own man — and you can sample and survey his wide body of work in The Essential Donovan, new from Epic/Legacy on Tuesday. The handsomely packaged two-CD set has 36 remastered tracks from throughout his career, including four previously unreleased in the U.S.: The Land of Doesn’t Have to Be, Sunny Goodge Street, Sand and Foam and Hey Gyp.
Three dozen songs might suggest some lulls and slogs, but few best-of collections sustain excellence as well as this one. Though familiar with almost all of the tracks, I hummed, toe-tapped and grooved through both discs.
So many genuine hits clamor for attention that I must note some lesser known but worthy material, such as Museum, a trippy little rocker which even Herman’s Hermits covered; the infectious Happiness Runs, as lilting and flower-power as a song can get; and the newly issued Hey Gyp, an edgy, urgent and or-else love song which Eric Burdon and The Animals also revered.
Those three songs alone are all over the musical map, which tells you in part why I love Donovan. He never was one thing — not the Celtic Dylan and not simply a poet troubadour strumming Catch the Wind. Essentially, he’s a masterful composer whose work has transcended its ’60s origins to become truly timeless.
Atlantis? That seems the stuff of fiction. Instead, all hail Donovan — the real thing.
— Bruce Westbrook