[20 October 2009]
Judee Sill could have been a bona fide star. Her first album was also the first for David Geffen’s Asylum label, which launched the careers of Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and the Eagles. She was a regular on the West Coast scene, and she toured with Graham Nash and David Crosby. Even more important than her associates were her songs, folk-inflected productions that were akin to the Laurel Canyon sound, but something different all the same.
So why is it that, 30 years after Sill’s death at age 35, her reputation needs reviving by indie rockers barely older than her recordings?
She was a self-destructive wreck, for one. Her father and brother died when she was young. Those personal tragedies and a disdain for her mother and stepfather led her to a life of small-time crime, prostitution, and drug use. Her last years were a waste. When she died of a drug overdose in 1979, she hadn’t released an album for six years. Many of her former friends were surprised she lasted so long.
Even though her talent was largely squandered, Sill’s two albums from the early 1970s, Judee Sill and Heart Food, document a considerable songwriting prowess. Dreams Come True, a planned third record that was finally released in 2005, only confirmed her abilities. Those abilities took her off in strange directions—too strange, apparently, for a mainstream audience to appreciate.
Sill’s songs are not folk music so much as hymns in a folk vein. But these are hymns directed at no god in particular. Shot off into the ether, they yearn for transcendence but seem uncertain where it will come from. Sometimes Sill’s longing is expressed in the simplest of terms, such as on “Reach for the Sky”, a previously unrecorded song that Beth Orton breathes life into here. More often, though, Sill’s mode is figurative. ‘Angel’, ‘astral’, ‘cosmos’: these are words that appear frequently in her work. She is always reaching for the heights that such words suggest. How jarring that her exterior life was lived in the opposite depths.
Though Sill’s lyrics were ambitious, the production on her Asylum albums tended toward the middle-of-the-road. With the exception of a song like “The Donor”, which used reverb and multilayered vocals to achieve the effect of chant, their slick strings and canned percussion now sound severely dated. But Sill knew how to write a hook, and the hooks are most immediate when the songs are heard without ornate studio effects. Rerecording them with a new set of production values was a pretty good idea.
The most successful tracks on this set are those that keep things simple—faithful renditions stripped of the gloss. Ron Sexsmith’s quiet but powerful version of “Crayon Angels”, for instance, distills the song down to its essence. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Sexsmith sings a quintessential Sill line: “Nothing’s happened but I think it will soon / So I sit here waiting for God and a train / To the astral plane”. On paper, such a lyric sounds a bit cute, but the beauty of Sill’s version—and Sexsmith’s, too—is how it renders the thought genuinely touching.
Other strong entries include “There’s a Rugged Road”, an upbeat country number performed by the Bye Bye Blackbirds, and Frida Hyvönen’s dynamic take on “Jesus Was a Cross Maker”, probably Sill’s best-known song. Both succeed in large part because the vocals are belted with such vigor. A fault of many tracks on the album is that they fail to approximate the power of Sill’s singing; it’s as if the artists felt bound to deliver a quiet vocal performance in order to show reverence. That is hardly a proper tribute to Sill’s style. She could lift her earthy voice into a higher register, but she rarely muted it.
Several of the songs on the album take an experimental leap and totally transform Sill’s original arrangements. Final Fantasy pares the dense reverb of “The Donor” and leaves a skeletal piano line. Colossal Yes imbues “The Phoenix” with a military drumbeat to give the update a heavier feel than the original. And with “The Kiss”, Marissa Nadler contributes one of the album’s most inventive renditions, replacing the song’s strings and piano with synths and drum machine to create glacially-paced electronica.
Inevitably, some tracks will attract attention for their performers. Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear does a version of “Waterfall” that sounds like, well, Grizzly Bear. Bill Callahan’s entry, the previously unrecorded “For a Rainbow”, meanders on for a disappointing eight minutes.
Despite the album’s mixed results, these performers are to be applauded for their effort to bring Sill to wider attention. She deserves to be better remembered.