“If I had a tale that I could tell you,” John Denver sings on Sunshine On My Shoulder, “I’d tell a tale sure to make you smile.” It’s difficult to place John Denver in today’s musical landscape. He’s not country, and he’s certainly not rock ‘n’ roll. And as far as today’s folk movement goes, it would be quite a surprise if the likes of Mumford & Sons or Fleet Foxes listed him as an influence. If you can still find a record store, you’d find him in its easy listening section.
And, despite the fact that this puts him right between Michael Bublé and Percy Faith on the shelf, it’s really about right. Listening doesn’t get any easier than John Denver. But really, when you get down to it, John Denver is a lot like The Flaming Lips‘ Wayne Coyne in terms of philosophy; both bring their own powerful brand of complex, down-to-earth, supercharged optimism to their work, but both are also acutely aware of the great sadness that comes with living and dying. That is perhaps one of few possible comparisons to be made between Denver and any modern artist.
The Ultimate Collection rounds up John Denver’s finest moments. In today’s fast-paced, technology-driven, cynical world, it sounds odd to hear that something as simple as “sunshine on my shoulders” can make someone happy. “Sunshine almost always makes me high,” Denver sings. If only it were still that easy. Listening to Denver causes a sort of nostalgia for a time long lost, which now seems as wonderful and foreign as the bygone time Denver sings about on his first real hit, Take Me Home, Country Roads. “Life is old there,” he sings. “Older than the trees, younger than the mountains, blowing like the breeze.”
John Denver, who died aged 53 years when his Experimental Rutan Long-EZ plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean, had a talent for marrying the complexities of life with its simple pleasures. There’s no song more jubilant than Thank God I’m A Country Boy, an ode to “life on the farm” and “cakes on the griddle,” which makes this light-hearted but infinitely important statement: “Life ain’t nothin’ but a funny, funny riddle.” The great philosophers never put it more concisely.
On Annie’s Song, which Denver wrote for his wife, he sings, “Come, let me love you. Let me give my life to you. Let me drown in your laughter. Let me die in your arms.” These heartfelt sentiments are not so easy to come by these days, and they cast a sort of bittersweet pall on the experience of wading through the still waters of Denver’s catalogue.
There’s a subtle quietness to Denver’s guitar work, and a longing in his voice that sets him apart from the rest of the easy-listening pack. This is nowhere more evident than on This Old Guitar, a fingerpicked ballad about how, “This old guitar gave me my lovely lady; it opened up her eyes and ears to me.” This sentiment is common enough among young men who pick up the guitar and learn a few covers to impress the ladies on the university lawn, but it’s never sounded so honest or earnest as it does through John Denver.
This 19-song collection ends with Denver’s biggest songwriting success, Leaving On A Jet Plane, which now seems inseparable from Peter, Paul & Mary. But to hear Denver sing it, it’s not a sunny, hopeful radio single. There’s a real weight in his voice, as if he genuinely doesn’t “know when I’ll be back again,” and the thought of being separated from his love is terrible and crushing. John Denver’s got a way of feeling everything that seems almost alien in the cold environs of the 21st century, and – unabashedly earnest and easy listening as it is – The Ultimate Collection is a fine reminder of a gentle voice from another time and place.