Sean James Donnelly

Just a wee while after I arrived in New Zealand, a song began to get some rotation on one of the music video stations on TV.  The song, Bad Karma In Yokohama struck a chord.  Firstly, it made me wonder who this SJD was.  Secondly, it made me wonder why Wendy and Lisa were working with this SJD.  They weren’t, it just resonated of their most recent work.  And, this SJD was Sean James Donnelly.  The album, Songs From A Dictaphone, became the first of his I bought.  Tracking down Southern Lights was easy.  Something happened after Dayglo Spectres, though, and I lost track of what Mr Donnelly was up to… I missed Electric Wasteland (hooray bandcamp!), but found Pyjama Club and have found Saint John Divine.  I knew SJD had been working with Don McGlashan but again, I’ve missed out on this work so far…The Bellbirds too… God, I’m rubbish at this aren’t I?  Thankfully, bandcamp is there to help me out…it’s all there!

God, you say? Yes…God.  There is a strong religiosity in SJD’s work.  Or, at least a strong sense of morality.  This intrigues me.  In my day job, I’ve compared SJD’s Beautiful Haze with James K Baxter’s poem Morning Train.  The idea in each being to take life by the throat and get on with living, don’t just let monotony or conformity grind you down (or so it seems to these eyes and ears).  I like SJD’s use of modern life, the “beautiful chains”, as a metaphor for the way in which we let the niceties of life, the trappings of earning a wage, become a barrier to actually living.  It corresponds well with Baxter’s bitter reading of the commuters on the Wellington train.  Within each text lies biblical/religious references.  In particular, as far as this piece is concerned, SJD’s play on the creation story – God surveying his creation and seeing that all was good – and his “nailed my edicts to the lunch room door” calling to mind Martin Luther.

The marrying of religious ideas/imagery in pop music has always interested me.  I suppose this stems from my own questioning of religion in my teens just as I was beginning to get some ready cash and be able to buy singles and albums of my own.  Initially, Prince and his Lovesexy album provoked a real internal debate for me about spirituality and the kind of God I wanted to exist, if exist at all.  There was naivety in my thinking – a closeted Catholic boy – and so the struggle, initially – before reading kicked in – this album spoke to me quite profoundly.  As did the accompanying tour.  In one magazine of the day, there was a picture of Prince, on stage in America somewhere, backing into a cloud of dry-ice.  He had an angry, perplexed look on his face and the tagline ran “if only I could get one person to understand” (or something like that mother memory plays tricks, the dear).  That’s where I was then.  I’m a little older, wiser and comfortable in my own skin now.  Listening to SJD, however, rekindles this issue for me.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that Sean James Donnelly is going through the personal turmoil of a Holy Grail quest.  If I may, he appears to be quite a balanced man but, like many artists, there is a sense of spiritual exploration about him and he asks questions.  That he intertwines religious imagery merely makes him all the more interesting, as far as I’m concerned.  It is a fundamental question – the relationship between man and religion (I mean, take a look at the news!).  I enjoy the fact that he uses this fundamental aspect of man to inform his writing.  And now I’ve found the entire discography available through bandcamp (did I mention how cool bandcamp is?  AND that it is home to The Trendees too!) I’ll have to go back and re-listen to see what I may have missed on his other work.  I’ll satisfy myself with the three song sequence on Songs From A Dictaphone for now: Jesus, I Am The Radio and, Lucifer.

Having written what I’ve written above, Jesus is a straight forward plea for salvation.  Lyrically, there are no twists or turns, this is a series of questions about finding Jesus – that’s Mr Jesus of the Christ family.  What’s interesting is the next song in the sequence: I Am The Radio.  Here, SJD suggests that music saves.  God is in music, in the radio, he is the sound.  Through music there is the salvation sought on Jesus.  All seems well, then.  But then we have Lucifer, and Lucifer is “beautiful”.  There appears to be a nod to Milton’s Paradise Lost here.  The character of Lucifer is painted as melancholic but almost heroic in the way he is winning the war.  There is a desperation in SJD’s vocal.  The blame for the singer’s bad behaviour he tries to assuage by honing in on Lucifer’s purpose, using it to absolve himself of guilt.  It is interesting that this is the third of this trio of tunes.  As a 1-2-3, the sequencing seems out of kilter.  Lucifer, surely, should come first and then redemption in the form of Jesus and I Am The Radio should follow.  Interestingly, the next song on the album looks to put the responsibility for behaviour squarely on the shoulders of the person, rather than on a devil.  (Just Say No To The) Disco Inferno does exactly what it says on the tin.  It warns you off.

This is an intriguing sequence of songs.  The ideas are oxymoronically shallow and deep simultaneously.  Music is the answer, say no to bad things, run alongside the ideas of salvation’s identity and moral/ethical behaviour.

Now, of course, we have an addition to the canon – Saint John Divine.  Again, the question of identity arises and there remains this spiritual aspect coursing through the album.  I’ll have to examine closer…AND now I have bandcamp…I can examine at my leisure!


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