Tim Buckley’s music was always in a state of flux, and as much about challenging himself as it was his audience (not to mention his record company), yet none more so than this album. Released in 1970, Starsailor was a turning point for Tim, one which found him shifting ever further from his gentle, melancholic folk beginnings and closer to something more akin to avant-garde expressionism. Increasingly under the influence of the likes of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, some of these tracks find the singer largely ditching melody completely, turning his voice into an instrument all its own.
The album gets off to a great start with “Come Here Woman”, an almost surrealistic, dream-like song full of Indian influences and funk-rock inflections, where he pushes his vocals to the extreme end of the cinematic spectrum. “I Woke Up” reminds the listener of his Happy/Sad period, except that is for the almost activistic arrangement behind him, not to mention all those weird vocal variations. This is where folk-rock meets Kind of Blue, yes strange but true. The funky, jerky “Monterey” has Buckley soaring above a dissonant, near insouciant rhythm section, including the odd Chimpanzee on heat yelp toward the end. But it’s not all quite out there – his cover of “Moulin Rouge” is practically family friendly in comparison with everything else on here.
Now I must say that the first time I heard “Song to the Siren” I was mesmerised, caught in a moment that could never be repeated. Of course I’ve listened to it many times, but it’s always that first moment which matters and lingers longest. “Song to the Siren” is not only one of Buckley’s most beautiful ballads, but also one of his most haunting. Larry Beckett’s lyrics are exquisite to say the least, as is Lee Underwood’s ghostly, supernatural sounding guitar, behind which one can hear the distant sirens crying out. The Latin-tinged “Jungle Fire” is like Tosca on acid, extremely operatic, while extremely mind-altering. At times Tim’s voice resembles that of a saxophone, hitting notes that would split the tonsils of most singers.
The spacey title song is perhaps the weakest link, like listening to a troupe of medieval monks who’ve eaten a little too much mouldy bread. Now call me nuts, but “The Healing Festival” sounds a lot like something off David Bowie’s final LP Black Star, which can mean only one of two things, that is a) it’s little more than a complete coincidence, or b) Bowie had heard this track and thought, ‘yeah, I’ll take a piece of that’. Or there could be a c); that is I have no idea what I’m talking about.
The final track “Down By the Borderline” I won’t even begin to describe. Is it jazz, Latin, rock, or maybe something else? Whatever it is I’m not exactly sure as to which category it belongs. Never a bad thing really, except that it won’t translate into record sales.
Starsailor is a forceful, at times confronting collection of compositions, one full of atmosphere and experimental wonder. Many of his original folk fans were left scratching their heads however, wondering what had happened to their once melodic troubadour. Yet as far as Buckley himself was concerned, many of these songs were an extension of the soul, as pretentious as that might seem. Tim was a one man sound barrier busting singer with lungs strong enough to launch a hot air balloon, that much is certain. And on this album he certainly stretched his artistic limits, as well as the listener’s.