Judee Sill - Abracadabra: The Asylum Years

Judee Sill
Abracadabra: The Asylum Years

Released 2006 on Rhino
Reviewed by Popel Vooje, 14/07/2006ce

If you're taking the time to peruse this, it's a fair bet that either a) you read every review posted on Unsung, or b) you already know at least the rough outline of Judee Sill's story. For sure, there's been a mild resurgence of interest in recent years, what with re-issues of both the abums she released in her lifetime (her sublime eponymous debut from 1971 - the first release on Devid Geffen's fledgling Asylum label - and its even more fully realised follow-up "Heart Food"), a collection of posthumously released demos entiled "Dreams Come True" for an abortive third LP mixed by disciple Jim O'Rourke, and the inevitable slew of gushing articles in the more wrinkly music monthlies (principally Uncut magazine).

For anyone who isn't familiar with the luckless set of circumstances that gave rise to Judee's muse, the tragedy of her life makes the likes of Kurt Cobain or Nick Drake's misfortunes seem so lightweight as to be almost insignificant. Heavily affected by the premature deaths of both her father (from pneumonia) and brother (in a car crash), and driven by a pathological dislike of her allegedly abusive stepfather, by her late teens she had already developed a heroin habit severe enough to force her into a dissolute lifestyle which encompassed armed robbery (for which she was incarcerated in reform school for several months) and spells of prostitution.

After her career ended (some say due to a falling out with powerful Asylum mogul Geffen over the bisexual Sill's alleged outing of him), the ongoing car crash unfortunately began to blossom into a full-scale pile-up. Sill broke her back in a climbing accident, but due to her history of drug addiction the hospital to which she was referred refused to provide her with painkillers. The inevitable result was that she began scoring opiates off the street again and died from a heroin overdose aged just 35.

Silll's uber-streetwise upbringing is hardly the archetypal bedrock for an ornately poetic singer songwriter. Indeed, the latter term conjures up highly unappealing images of self-obsessed, sollipsistic whingers in denim shirts who snorted way too much cocaine and gazed loftily down at the everyday travails of those in the wider world from the heights of their Laurel Canyon mansions.

On the surface, Judee Sill might have appeared to be one of them. In fact, on first listen, there's very little evidence of the endless deluge of misfortune and bad judgement she endured. To the uninitiated, her albums can sound pretty but rather insubstantial, weighted down by AOR arrangements that teeter dangerously close to "Whistle Test"-friendly blandness. There's little on "Abracadabra - The Asylum Years" that would unsettle regular listeners to Bob Harris' or Annie Nightingale's late-night soothefests on Radio 2.

However, give them time, and Judee's songs reveal thesmelves to have a great deal more depth than is immediately apparent. I'll freely admit that it took a dozen or so listens for her muse to connect with me - I initially bought her albums seperately as expensive re-issues on the internet-only Rhino Handmade label, and was disappointed at first. Sure, there was an immediate feeling of spirituality and resignation that was missing from the more earthbound works of many of her contemporaries such as Joni Mitchell or Laura Nyro, but musically her albums didn't sound that much different.

Nonetheless, they ultimately turned out to be the most insidious, slow-burning masterpieces I've encountered since discovering the work of Nick Drake or Gene Clark (both of whose works Sill bears comparison with). Songs like "My Man Of Love" and "The Pheonix" may take several weeks to fully worm their way into your psyche, but once they do, you can bet your grandma's life insurance settlement that they'll take up semi-permanent residence and doggedly refuse to leave until the local council grants them squatters' rights.

So what exactly is it that makes Sill's music so universal and timeless in spite of its obvious roots in the immediate post-hippie generation? It's the classic dichotomy that poets and artists have struggled with and been motivated by since time immemorial - the desire for redemption, and the need to create some sort of beauty out of irredeemably squalid circumstances. Sill's lyrics are littered with enough Christian references to make Jason Pierce blush, yet it's obvious that they were not the work of a wet-behind-the-ears sunday school kid but of a repentant sinner seeking self-validation amidst the increasingly picaresque car-crash that constituted her life.

Also, unlike the works of so many of the SoCal-based female singer songwriters to which she Sill is freqeuently compared, her lyrics feature very little in the way of direct autobiography. Whilst the songs may be directly related to her life and its various struggles and moments of redemption, they are never tiresomely self-referential in the way that Joni Micthell's or James Taylor's could be in 1971 - it's all described in abstract, metaphor-laden terms which make it possible for the listener to apply them to his / her own life. In other words, there's no "me me me" here.

On a more simplistic level, they're also effortlessly beatiful songs. Highlights include "Crayon Angels" (whose neo-classical arrangements are an Amercian counterpart to Robert Kirby's work on the first two Nick Drake albums), "When The Bridegroom Comes" (which easily trumps both Joni Mitchell and Carole King at their own game, however meritorious their works may have been) and "The Pheonix", which is poignant enough to make a child of the 70s like this writer regress into the state of bathetic, womb-hugging nostalgia that my rational self will always despise.

There's also the near-hit "Jesus Was A Crossmaker", which never quite made Judee Sill a star despite heavy radio airplay and an inferior (and much more popular) cover version by the Hollies. Shit, the fact that even a hardened, cynical old git like myself can't describe this stuff without descending into hyperbole is proof enough of it's greatness, surely?

Low points? There aren't many, although this 2-disc set's inclusion of spare acoustic demos for both of the entire albums may strike some listeners as excessive. Also, Don Bagley and Bob Harris's arrangements on the first album can get a little too Hollywood-schmaltzy at times ("The Phantom Cowboy" and "Abracadabra" being the most obvious examples). On "Heart Food" however, Judee had opted to take over the arranging chores herself, making for a more tasteful and less self-consciously ornate listen. It is largely for that reason that it is the better of the two albums. Nevertheless, if you don't want to hear the original albums demystified as works-in-progress, you can always programme them out or deselect them on your I-Pod. Also, don't expect instant gratification here - as mentioned before, this is subtle, unimposing stuff that takes time to convince.

As XTC's Andy Partridge points out in his sleevenotes for the Water re-issue of "Heart Food", the mere fact that someone as fucked-up and resolutely unhippyish as Judee Sill could produce such sublime, celestial and yet gut-wrenchingly soulful music is one of life's more enduring puzzles, but we should be eternally grateful that she did. Now that her enitre lifetime's output is available cheaply on this collection - selling on amazon.co.uk for as little as £8.99 - it's accessible to anyone who's even vaguely beguiled by the story behind it, or who just wants to hear some of the most enduringly wistful music of the seventies.

Additionally, there's also the aforementioned compilation of 1974 demos, entitled "Dreams Come True" and containg an enthralling 16-page biog that may or may not contain some over-baked mythology - but anyone who's unfamiliar with Ms. Sill's hitherto neglected muse shuld definitely start here and work their way forwards.

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