September 23, 2008
Illuminations (Vanguard 1969)
I don’t even know why I picked this one up during a chicken shit jag in Dothan, Alabama where my masochism led me to linger after a slow-moving breakup. No one said “No Mas”, but both parties were constantly on the verge of letting those words fly. During this awkward status quo, I wandered the local mall and picked up Roky Erickson’s Never Say Goodbye and Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Illuminations. I didn’t know much about her other than her stint on Sesame Street, but the cover looked so sparse, pagan and downright alien to me as i ran my fingers over an endless parade of alt-rock detritus. This depressing moment resulted in my first date with two albums that still symbolize love, longing and its eventual decay to me.
Illuminations is the darkest and bizarre album of Buffy Saint-Marie’s career and much of this due to the contributions of Michael Czajkowski who recorded an odd electronic album for the folksy Vanguard label. She definitely plumbed some chasms on past albums, but the vocals and lyrics were the foundation for her angst and eloquence. However, Illuminations transcends her past because the orchestration, process vocals, reverb and general eccentricity comes from a place not unlike fellow travelers 50 Foot Hose, Jefferson Airplane and even the Silver Apples. I love Grace Slick’s embrace of the psychedelic goddess on the first two Jefferson Airplane records, but this less hippie-dippy and more tender and fractured.
It is hard to discuss this album without paying tribute to the pagan mysticism of the opener, “God is Alive, Magic is Afoot.” It is no surprise that Coil covered this song since it seems like a template for most of their excursions into magick and hallucinatory imagery. Only Comus delved into such impassioned psychedelic territory. This song celebrates the existence of spirits all around us, but the fucked electronic effects make it downright unsettling. It is as if your beliefs in sprituality have come back to haunt you as animism takes hold and your surroundings come alive with a cavalcade of good and evil spirits. It is haunting in a literal sense and never fails to creep me out of my fucking gourd.
Maybe my devotion to this album is rooted in its association with a low point in my life, but tracks like “The Vampire” capture the essence of emotional cannibalism where both parties feed on one another in order to prolong the inevitable. Plus, I love the line where the vampire’s victim laments the fact she must bid goodbye to her rosary now that she has crossed the border into another phase of her life. She has been drained and it is time to start a new life. I may be stretching a bit, but I found solace in this morbid tale and still do to a lesser extent.
Illuminations is ahead of its time, but you rarely hear anyone cite her as an influene or embrace her as a newfound love. I wholeheartedly endorse any of her 60s albums, but this one possesses a hoodoo that rivals any record of the late 60s.