Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ll know, ad nauseam, that after an unsuccessful career in late ’60s folk-pop and despite being championed by everyone from Andrew Loog Oldham to Robert Kirby and The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan retired from the music industry in 1970.
While she lived in blissful hippiedom on the Isle of Skye, across various seas her one and only album Just Another Diamond Day was slowly influencing an entire generation of singer-songwriters from Devendra Banhart to Joanna Newsom whose gentle, pop-tinged and string-drenched melodies would spawn entire genres of nu folk, folktronica, twisted folk. Even the Magic Numbers owe something of a debt to her.
When her new century musical progeny sought her out and welcomed her back into a mainstream ready to appreciate her, it seemed the music industry went wild. A female Nick Drake, alive and well and only too eager to give us new tunes, she was a folk-pop phoenix risen from the ashes of the Haight-Ashbury via Canterbury dream.
All well and good but, on the back of one unsuccessful 1970 album and a few equally unsuccessful 1960s singles, can she possibly warrant a 25-track, double CD package of singles, outtakes, demos and rarities? Remarkably, the answer is a resounding yes.
From CD 1’s polished singles, released by Decca and Columbia and shelved by Immediate, through hi-quality unreleased demo tapes found in an attic by her brother John to the sparse, pared down acoustic demos that appear on CD 2, you may find it genuinely difficult to understand how, even when they had Bob Dylan to distract them, the counter-culture hippies of four decades ago could have tossed this music aside.
There are some genuinely amazing songs here, not least Girl’s Song In Winter and 17 Pink Sugar Elephants. Their titles alone conjure up the scene. They also highlight perhaps the most important quality of Bunyan’s work – there is a coldness about her music which is diametrically opposed to the summer sunshine that is meant to shine over folk.
Listen to the pained, spoken Leave Me at the beginning of the song of the same name, for a start. There is a creeping frost in Bunyan’s music, a black dog of the soul at a time when youth culture was about to explode in a rainbow soaked psychedelic wonderland. And then remember that CD 2’s demos were recorded in1964 – 18 months before Rubber Soul was released. She had tuned in and dropped out years before the phrase even existed.
Keep that in mind as you listen to this music. It look the record buying public the best part of 20 years to understand Nick Drake, and Vashti Bunyan had a 10-year head start on him. She was singing to people who had only just realised it was okay to have hairthat covered their ears, and she was singing from the midnight of a winter that was at least 10 years away.
Of course they had no chance of understanding her. Andrew Loog Oldham did, but he saw the potential in the Rolling Stones before anyone else did, too. Song titles such as Coldest Night Of The Year, Don’t Believe, Go Before The Dawn and Girl’s Song In Winter were not made for the summer of love and certainly not for the spring leading into it. Just thank a combination of fate and the musical visionaries of today that they were kept on ice long enough not to melt away completely.