SJD: Saint John Divine (Round Trip Mars)

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SJD: Jet Planes
SJD: Saint John Divine (Round Trip Mars)

In many places on previous albums SJD (Sean James Donnelly) has reached towards an almost spiritual sensibility in music which is elevating and airy, and suggests the sublime . . . albeit in a secular setting and with lyrics which have been droll or touched by ennui, or sadness.

The title here -- nodding towards his own nom de disque -- as well a cover painting which seems a skewed contemporary take on religious paintings such as those of St Francis of Assisi might suggests he's gone the whole Catholic route.

But his tastes and sensibilities are more catholic than dogma -- witness his previous album of eclectic homecrafted electronica Elastic Wasteland -- so here, while a sense of mystery, emotional warmth and his signature melancholy hang over most songs, he looks into emotional darkness, yet also celebrates life in words grounded in the real as much as exploring the ether.

Throughout there are religious references -- none more so than on Through the Valley with it's "It will be accomplished on Earth as it is in Heaven" -- and there seems to be some thread of a spiritual guide traveling through this world with all its strangeness and beauty.

He is the one on the stately Invisible Man (echoes of a less urgent Peter Gabriel in its arrangement) who sings "if you can't see me then nobody can . . . things are gonna get broken" as he sings from a dark place (pills, 10,000 volts going through his system) where life almost tips into the abyss.

Perhaps it is that mistily drawn character (St John, the patron saint of love, loyalty and writers?) who is the divine intervention on the literal and metaphorical Catseyes: "Oh, how indifferently you saved my life, a moment later and your gone from my tyres".

Musically -- with assistance from a rollcall of longtime friends and empathetic souls including Neil Finn, Julia Deans and Anna Coddington -- this is as lush, soulful and gentle (the gorgeous Jet Planes) as Elastic Wasteland was crisp and wired.

Here are strings, brass and backing vocals rounding out songs which at their core have a clean, melodic simplicity which makes them immediately engaging but also reward return visits as layers are revealed.

And this is also an album of discrete songs, some of which embrace light'n'life: the retro-pop of I Wanna Be Foolish which opens with "I went down to the tavern in my evening gown now my head's gonna bend like a merry-go-round" and concludes with some soulful falsetto; Little Pieces with Deans which is air-filled pop with a point. 

SJD remains one of our most consistent -- and consistently interesting -- artists who frequently makes a subtle shift of direction yet can carry listeners with him.

With so much musical information here -- lyrical and in its arrangements -- this is him stepping onto another platform, and you might even be tempted to say a higher plane.

Highly recommended. 

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