Judee Sill, Judee Sill (1971)

Judee Sill, 'Judee Sill' (1971)Judee Sill released two full-length albums during her brief time in this world, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973). Neither sold well, despite critical acclaim. She started a third LP, but abandoned it for various reasons, including lack of commercial success to that point and various health and drug-related issues. She died in 1979 at 35 after overdosing on cocaine and codeine.

Thus ended a life of pain and hardship. Yet Sill managed to produce some of the most pleasurable music one can imagine. Both records are stunning, with “The Kiss” from Heart Food dizzyingly gorgeous -- a song XTC’s Andy Partridge once called the most beautiful ever written. The posthumous Dreams Come True (2005) collecting tracks from that aborted third record has winning moments as well. But it’s her self-titled debut I return to most.

“Crayon Angels” begins the record with what might seem precious opening lines (“Crayon angels’ songs are slightly out of tune, but I’m sure I’m not to blame”), a softly-plucked guitar identifying Sill’s default idiom as folk. But soon comes talk of God, the astral plane, mystic roses, and phony prophets. And a yearning oboe accompaniment and irresistible melody in which one cannot help but get lost.

“The Phantom Cowboy” follows, continuing the cosmic contemplations in a countryfied vein. “The Archetypal Man” again evokes prairie leisure with its slide guitars, although a wildly baroque vocal over the bridge reminds that no Sill track is simply “country” or “folk” or “pop” but something altogether unique.

“The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown” next challenges with lyrics inspired by Christian imagery and themes of spiritual confusion. Heavy stuff, but delivered in a sweet, syrupy package and concluding with a lovely, multi-tracked fade out recalling “God Only Knows.” Then comes “Lady-O,” a mellow ballad in which Sill describes a woman’s beauty in Petrarchean terms.

Side One closes with the incredible, transcendent “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” starting with solo piano and measured vocals, then building to a stirring climax with percussion and choir-like backing. The lyrics again seem focused on seeking answers of a spiritual nature and not finding them, although despite the title and more talk of angels, it’s hardly a religious song.

“Ridge Rider” clip-cloppingly opens Side Two, another figure who like the phantom cowboy beguiles. “My Man on Love” is next, a simple-sounding but lyrically complex love song. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” follows, its story of desultory wandering punctuated by an inspiring message that “however we are is okay.”

The disc concludes with the bouncy “Enchanted Sky Machines” and enigmatic “Abacadabra,” the latter finding the Sill-led orchestra surprisingly taking over halfway through.

Because of her short life, relatively small output, and folk roots, Sill often gets compared to Nick Drake. I like Drake, but Sill’s music takes me to a much different, more hopeful place. She never finds the answers for which she seeks, but her leaving such remarkable evidence of having tried is more than enough to inspire those she’s left behind.

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