Judee Sill was a heartfelt singer-songwriter who met with little commercial success during her lifetime. Nor has she really had one of those latter-day critical canonizations that are all the rage these days. Which I guess is proof that you can be a great obscure songwriter and die young and still not become much of a legend.
Her main lyrical topic was spirituality, and the constant battle with her personal demons. Her teenage years had included armed robbery, prostitution, and the heroin addiction that eventually took her life. But despite the wrenching darkness that resides within it, her music is always optimistic. Her unfailingly melodic songs mixed country, folk, pop, and gospel, often featuring suspiciously Jesus-like cowboy characters, and culminating in the progressive epic “The Donor” that closes her second album.
Sill’s second and final album vanished without even the modest commercial success of her debut, but i some ways it arguably trumps its predecessor. Produced and arranged by Sill herself, it dips more heavily into country and gospel, including the 8-minute prog-gospel finale “The Donor”, which rises from a sea of gorgeous layered male and female vocals. It’s followed, randomly enough, by a hidden track in the form of a strange jig.
“The Pearl” is the hit-single-that-wasn’t, a short, sweet folk-pop number with a snappy orchestral hook—but every song here is catchy and well-performed. It’s difficult to pick out favorites, but “The Phoenix” has some of her best lyrics: “On phosphorous wings the phoenix floated/Fires froze and the sea was hushed/And when I tried to speak the sun imploded/and the war will wage in my guts/till the devil bites the dust/I never saw him losin’ a race but I think he must.”
Elsewhere, Sill makes fine use of her orchestration on “The Kiss” (are you sensing a pattern to the song titles yet?), and her backup singers on the church organ-driven “Down Where the Valleys Are Low”. “When the Bridgroom Comes”, on the other hand, is the one track performed completely solo on piano, and it’s one of the best, although the lyrics (composed by her then-boyfriend David Omer Bearden) sound a little out of place in their conscious poeticity.
Rhino’s reissue appends nine bonus tracks. Outtake “The Desperado” is a welcome addition, with a lovely bridge that contrasts the country flavor of the rest of the song. The rest are solo demos of all the album tracks (except “When the Bridegroom Comes”, presumeably because it’s solo anyway.) They’re all solid, but not reveletory. I suppose it’s a testament to her skill as a producer that the songs actually work better with all the overdubs, even though most of them were obviously written to be complete as solo pieces.
Sill also recorded demos for a lost third album, but those aren’t available on CD. I’ve heard they aren’t too good, which would certainly explain it. But you can track ’em down on mp3 if you really want. Other than that, this is Sill’s last testament, and a fine one it is. Note: since I wrote this review, a demo collection has been released. I’ll be giving it a listen…