Tomorrow sees the release of Elastic Wasteland, the new album by SJD. Auckland-based Sean James Donnelly has used the SJD moniker across the last decade and a half to house his solo and band work; music that traverses electronica and downbeat, pop and rock - a little bit electro, a little bit retro, postmodern pop songs that showcase time spent listening deeply across the spectrum.
Donnelly has worked with Don McGlashan and was a crucial element of Neil Finn's Pajama Club band/project. He formed The Bellbirds with McGlashan, Victoria Kelly and Sandy Mill and, as SJD, he's released a small handful of immaculate, beautiful albums - songs that could make you weep, that make you proud to know them.
There was Lost Soul Music in 2001. That was the first album to get people talking. It arrived as part of the bedsit-electronica scene. It was 2004's Southern Lights that really impressed though. Particularly the song Superman You're Crying. That was the start of the journey in a way. (It was the entry point for a lot of people.)
Songs from a Dictaphone arrived in 2007. By now it was obvious that every time Donnelly released an album he would reinvent himself as a songwriter, performer and producer, while never turning his back on his musical past. Songs from a Dictaphone is, as far as I'm concerned, one of the truly great albums to come from this country. A unique talent reinventing himself - it's packed with superb songs, it brims and bristles with ideas. It still sounds exciting. It's an album I regularly return to (one I've arguably never left). And then, a year on, Dayglo Spectres managed to offer another version of SJD, something just a bit different again; a slight twist on the recipe and a continuation.
After that swift follow-up, after two great albums back to back, Sean took a break. He resurfaced last year, working alongside Finn, helping to coax the best music Neil Finn had made in a decade. Hearing Donnelly's contributions to Pajama Club made me hope and wish for a new SJD album.
Well tomorrow is the day. Elastic Wasteland is available. And it's another new level for Sean and his music. It's dark and sombre but it has so much in the way of heart. This time the band is gone, it's back to Donnelly solo - but as with Songs from a Dictaphone and Dayglo Spectres it's an album of pop turned on its ear; an album so full of ideas as to be almost overwhelming - a spiritual experience, music to connect with, to almost instantly form a bond with. It's another beautiful record.
I've been fortunate to have a copy of the album for a few weeks now - and I've been playing it every day. I've been spreading the word where and when (including now, obviously). And it occurs to me, writing this, that with Elastic Wasteland, Donnelly has created a trilogy of albums - from Dictaphone through Dayglo to Wasteland - that could stand up against any trilogy of albums released in this part of the world; that stand head and shoulders above almost any other possible contenders.
The opening track, The Lizard Kings, has been available as a free download for a while now. It does in some way set the tone - but it can't communicate the full depth of the album; you would never want one track to sum up everything you have to say across a set of songs. That much would seem obvious, I know. But what is truly remarkable, in listening to Wasteland, is how Donnelly manages to serve so many masters (and evoke a few); how truly genre-less this music is, not just in the magpie-like pickings from an ear-to-the-ground Donnelly, but how likely it is that this album could appeal then to so many different listener groups.
The instrumental hip-hop of Flying Lotus, and the soaring vocal work of Active Child, the postmodern, after-midnight slurred-soul crooning of James Blake and the business-casual charms of pre- and post-party LCD Soundsystem - fans of any/all of those could feel satiated with this album. Donnelly has always had a feeling of the classic songwriter about him too - Songs from a Dictaphone referenced Leonard Cohen (perhaps updating him for the laptop age) and there are icy and eerie moods across the songs of Wasteland. But the album is never bleak - it's often joyous because there's an expressive singer giving so much from his soul. There's a pervasive feeling of hope. Optimism.
I'm speaking in the moment, obviously; I've been so completely tied up by this album, I have not had to wrestle with it, I wouldn't have stood a chance - I was knocked over on the first listen. It won me over almost instantly but continues to offer something new with each listen. I'm pretty sure this is Sean James Donnelly's masterpiece. And I feel comfortable and confident saying that.
And in saying this: he will not let you down.
Every time Sean releases an album he makes his new masterpiece.
Elastic Wasteland is a singer/songwriter album, it has Krautrock elements, there's something here for the bloggers who post up the latest trends and fads and styles - production boffins looking for beats to appreciate then pinch. Elastic Wasteland is a comedown for party-goers returning home in the wee smalls, it's a set of snapshots from a man on top of his game but playing as though he's very unsure of his craft. A guy who has put in the 10,000 hours but knows he needs to keep going. And it's an album of dance music for the head and heart more so than for the feet. It's a beautiful haze of an album; dreamed-up pop music that deserves your time and attention.
I'm convinced it's an album for everyone.
But I do know it's been the album for me lately. A new favourite. A new Album of the Year contender.
My favourite new element this time around is Sean's aping of Robert Wyatt. I can hear that he's been listening to Wyatt - it's never more clear than on the new album's second song, Make Love Ask Questions Later, but it's also there, in traces, on These Are the Names and Lena. And it's a wonderful addition to the canon of voices that Donnelly conjures.
As I said here already, the album has been streaming this week thanks to the Herald. So head there for a last-minute/day-before fix. Then buy the album. Give Sean and Round Trip Mars some money. These are the good guys; people giving us great music for the right reasons.
So are you keen to check out Elastic Wasteland? Or have you heard it already? Are you an SJD fan? What are your thoughts on the new sounds found on Elastic Wasteland?