There is a picture in the booklet of SJD’s Elastic Wasteland that shows Sean Donnelly alone in his studio, clutching an acoustic guitar. Oddly, you will hear little acoustic guitar on the album – or any non-electronically treated sounds, for that matter. Yet that classic image of the solitary singer-songwriter is fitting for an intimate set of songs Donnelly recorded entirely on his own.
The sense of solitude is comparable to that of Pink Moon, Nick Drake’s lonely masterpiece. The synthesisers and drum machines that provide virtually the sole accompaniment to Donnelly’s sublime voice are just this craftsman’s equivalent of the folk singer’s guitar. These are some of the most satisfying and sophisticated songs Donnelly has ever put to disc.
Melody and lyric are treated as equals, with just one dance-friendly instrumental to break up the mid-to-slow tempos. Aside from a robotic vocal effect on one song that comes riskily close to novelty, he has never sung more affectingly, particularly on those vulnerable and true top notes.
Elastic Wasteland marks Donnelly’s return as a solo artist after a long period as a collaborator. His instrumental and production prowess were crucial to Neil Finn’s recent Pajama Club project; before that he alternated bass duties for Don McGlashan with intermittent releases under his SJD moniker, which grew from its solo beginnings into a full band.
Now he is back on his own, and more than one song finds him contemplating aloneness. In Empty World, everyday beauty is rendered meaningless by the absence of a loved one, and The Lizard Kings portrays a world turned on itself by a race of reptilian invaders. In both songs, the sense of alienation is enhanced by the whirring electronic chord-scapes.
In spite of its jokey title, Elastic Wasteland is full of such ominous portents. Song of Baalmatches one of Donnelly’s most plaintive melodies to the monologue of amythic tyrant, and Jumping Over Fences finds a fugitive seeking temporary solace while pursuing choppers buzz overhead. And yet there is hope and comfort, too.
On the Driveway – the first of three exquisite songs that close the album – evokes a classic Kiwi New Year’s Eve, complete with “the moon’s reflection in piss puddles by the porch”. Like a local Auld Lang Syne, the gently stirring melody strikes a tone of cautious optimism. It evokes feelings of family, loved ones and home. In a wasteland ruled by reptiles and tyrants, these are things to hold on to.
ELASTIC WASTELAND, SJD (Round Trip Mars).