Donovan: Try For the Sun: The Journey of Donovan

Maura McAndrew

Always-mellow 1960s folkie Donovan is given true hero status, quite rightly.


Try for the Sun: the Journey of Donovan

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2005-09-13
UK Release Date: 2005-09-12
iTunes affiliate
Amazon affiliate

A decade before Bruce Springsteen held the title of "the new Dylan", a British teenager named Donovan Leitch lay claim to it, even befriending the man himself. Donovan rose to fame strumming earnest folk songs and psychedelic rockers in the late 1960s, recording his first album when he was in his teens and gaining international stardom by age 20. Inspired by Woody Guthrie and Buddy Holly as well as his peers, Donovan collaborated with and befriended some of the great musicians of his time, such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, The Mamas and the Papas, The Animals, Jeff Beck, Ron Wood, and members of Led Zeppelin. After a short, successful career, this particular "new Dylan" seemed content to fade into the background, withdrawing from the spotlight in the 1970s and releasing few albums after that. As a result, Donovan's rightful place among the great folk-rockers of the '60s and '70s has been somewhat overlooked.

I never knew much about Donovan aside from the oh-so-'60s party tune "Mellow Yellow", and I had always thought of him as just some silly hippie. I would smirk at my mother's copy of Donovan's Greatest Hits and its close-up shot of the young Donovan with his wild hair, large honest eyes, and boyish grin. Though Donovan was silly, it was a good silly, and his songs were not only catchy; they really said something about the spirit of a certain era of rock 'n roll. Epic/Legacy's new three-disc box set (including a live DVD and previously unreleased recent material) will perhaps put Donovan back on the minds of all the Dylan and Beatles-worshippers who have neglected his influence.

The box set, though a big project to tackle for any but the most obsessed Donovan fans, is extremely well put together. The first disc is the one that will attract casual fans: it contains the early Dylan-esque folk tracks "Catch the Wind" and "Josie", as well as the fantastic über-hit "Sunshine Superman", which I instantly recognized from years of oldies radio and my parents' records. This song is, to me, as emblematic of the 1960s as any of The Beatles' hits. Also heard here are "Season of the Witch" and the strangely endearing "Mellow Yellow". One highlight of this box set is its killer liner notes, written with obsessive glee by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis. He lets the fans in on Donovan's days partying in swinging '60s London, as well as little known collaborations (like Paul McCartney's barely audible cameo on "Mellow Yellow").

What is startling about Donovan, both in the story of his life and in his music, is how honest everything is. There is no mystery about him, which is most likely why he was never a cult figure like Dylan. He is not evasive, not depressed, and his lyrics are not cryptic. When he writes a song about a woman, he calls it "Jennifer Juniper", "Legend of a Girl Child Linda" or "Celia of the Seals". He doesn't change names, nor does he hide behind metaphors. Song One on the second disc, the hopeful "Epistle to Dippy", was written for Donovan's childhood friend, nicknamed "Dippy". When Dippy heard the song, he and Donovan got back in touch with one another. This is Donovan through and through: earnest and well intentioned. Throughout Disc Two this is displayed in hits such as "Hurdy Gurdy Man", and the flute-laden "Lalena".

Disc Three showcases more of Donovan's confessional folk from the early 1970s, most of which draws on the Celtic influences of his Scottish upbringing. A trio of more recent tracks, 1994's "Please Don't Bend", 2003's "Love Floats" and 2004's "Happiness Runs" show him growing with the times, but not neglecting his classic style. Especially "Happiness Runs", an updated version of his 1969 song, which sounds like something any modern folk hero would die to create.

These three discs are not only packed with the hits of Donovan's heyday, but are also full of surprises. His delicate Celtic timbre, combined with his honest lyrics and sunny melodies, make him much more than a silly hippie or a 1960s throwback. He is an important musician with a real place in rock history. Don't let the earnest smile fool you; with Donovan, happiness is just as beautiful as sadness.






The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.


The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.


Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.


'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.


'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"


Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.


The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".


GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".


Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".


Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.