15 Nov 2016

I've Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 15 November 2016
Sandy Denny

Sandy Denny Photo: Supplied

Nick Bollinger looks over a collection of solos and demos from the late Sandy Denny.

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Somewhere on an album by the prolific English musician Richard Thompson you’ll find the small inscription: in continuing remembrance of Nick and Sandy. Nick is Nick Drake, the tragically brilliant singer-songwriter and Thompson’s contemporary, who went to his grave at age 26, believing his work had fallen on deaf ears. Sandy is Sandy Denny.

When Sandy Denny died at 31, a bit less than four years after Drake, she wasn’t exactly unknown. Yet in a way her death was as much a tale of unfulfilled promise. That case is made strongly by I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny: a two-disc set spanning the ten years in which she recorded.

Most of the tracks have actually been released before – a lot of them on an exhaustive 19-disc set that came out in 2010. But in narrowing the focus, as this album does, to her solo or acoustic performances, one is able to appreciate perhaps more clearly than ever, what Denny’s real gifts were. Singer-songwriter is a common term these days, often applied to people who don’t really do much of either, but it was only starting to gain currency when Denny was in her prime, and if nothing else she was those two things – a singer and songwriter – par excellence.

There’s an amazing performance here, recorded for a BBC John Peel session in 1973, of Denny’s song ‘Solo’, which includes the lyric “I’ve always kept a unicorn and I never sing out of tune’, from which this collection takes its title. But the question she asks in the chorus, ‘Ain’t life a solo?’ might be as profound as you’ll find in any popular song, and proof of Denny’s brilliance as a writer, while her vocal – intricate, dynamic and almost completely without vibrato – is a masterpiece of both control and expression.

Going solo was evidently on her mind at the time she wrote the song. She had just left three bands in succession: The Strawbs to join Fairport Convention, then Fairport to form the short-lived Fotheringay. And though by this time of this recording she had finally launched her solo career, even then it seems to have been with some reluctance. Between her third and her final solo album she would re-join Fairport, and even in her solo work she often seemed to be wilfully hiding behind a band. The version of ‘Solo’ that appeared on her Like An Old Fashioned Waltz album, was swamped in orchestration and mid-70s multi-tracked guitars which she seemed to wrap around her like a security blanket. The naked version here is so much more powerful.

There’s an argument that Sandy Denny may have peaked early as an artist and that by the time of her death she had run out of things to say, though a late song like ‘I’m A Dreamer’ proves the contrary. (Like ‘Solo’ it appears here in demo form and surpasses the over-orchestrated original.) Certainly, she had reached her highest profile a few years earlier - probably when Led Zeppelin featured her on their epic ‘Battle Of Evermore’, the only guest vocalist ever to sing on a Zeppelin record. And it seems, from biographies as well as her songs, that towards the end she was far from happy.

Whatever she might have gone on to achieve is a matter of speculation. But I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn makes a fine summary of what she did achieve in her relatively brief lifetime. Without the lavish arrangements of her official releases, these demos aren’t chained to the era in which they were recorded. They sound crisp and contemporary. They could have been made today – that is, if there was anyone around who was this good.

Songs featured: Who Knows Where The Time Goes, Solo, No End, I’m A Dreamer, Learning The Game.

I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn is available on Island Records.