'Checking out the show. With a glassy eye. Looking at the sun dancing through the sky. Did it come, by U.F.O.?'
Sometimes you chance upon something and realise within a few songs that you've unearthed something really special. Such is the case here. I was directed this way be a recommendation from Eleanor Friedberger, and I'm very glad I followed her suggestion. These songs all hail from American singer-songwriter Jim Sullivan's 1969 debut album U.F.O.
Ten songs, mostly between two and three minutes long, the whole album clocks in at about half an hour. Fronted by Sullivan's rich, deep, smokey voice and backed by three musicians from the legendary LA based Wrecking Ball band, Don Randi, Earl Palmer and Jimmy Bond, famed for their recordings with Phil Spector among much else.
Friedberger says that when she discovered this record, for a few months she found herself playing little else, and it's easy to hear why. The album, like all the very best records, quickly establishes its time and place, immerses you in another world, and maintains its grip effortlessly for its course. There's not a weak link here. by the time you get to the end you just want to hear the whole thing again.
It's not really groundbreaking, instead slotting into a well-worn and familiar tradition. I'm minded of Jimmy Webb, Townes Van Zandt, Gene Clark, Lee Hazlewood, Michael Nesmith, Sixto Rodriguez, and Gram Parsons at various points and Sullivan isn't shamed by any of these comparisons. It really is that good!
The songs are all lovingly crafted and paced but perhaps what drags the album into another sphere are the quite extraordinary arrangements by Jimmy Bond of the Crew. At several points during the course of the record these lift things onto a level where you're quite astonished by the quality of what you're hearing and find it difficult to understand how this record is not widely acknowledged and lauded.
Sullivan was not without famous friends. The Wrecking Crew of course, but he was also a drinking buddy of Harry Dean Stanton's and had a bit part in Easy Rider. Whatever the reason however, the album did not take flight on its release, perhaps because Nick Venet at Capitol refused to take up his option on the record and it came out on small, local independent Monnie instead. Sullivan released a second record in 1972 which suffered a similar, obscure fate.
From here, Sullivan's back-story enters the realms of myth. In 1975, on a road trip, he disappeared completely into the desert in New Mexico outside Santa Rosa. His car was found abandoned, his motel room untouched and no trace of him was ever found. Tales began circulating that he'd been abducted by criminals, or for those that way inclined aliens. Perhaps the title of his debut album and the eerie quality of many of its tracks help fuel this theory. The mystery has never been solved. Sullivan is gone.
This record serves as a very rich legacy to his memory. It's a masterpiece. Melodic,rich folk country songs, layered by Bond's wonderful arrangements settling into something deeper, unsettling and mythic. Sullivan's presence is slightly gloomy, introspective, almost resigned to the cruel nature that the road life can take. The lyrics hint at some dark undertow, a hidden experience beneath the arrangements themselves. At these points it's Van Zandt and his bleak, poetic qualities that I'm reminded of most.
Listen to it if you don't know it already. It's all on Spotify and YouTube and I've posted it here in its entirity with the exception of second last track Johnny, which I couldn't find a direct link to. Ironically, as it's perhaps the best song of all. Read more about Sullivan's fascinating story here and here. A quite beautifully played, arranged and sung album with a distinctive dark, poetic quality about it. It's been re-released recently and should be easy to track down should you want a copy for yourself.