Gilbert O’Sullivan

The Essential Collection

(Union Square/BMG)

Three or four years ago, Union Square put out an impressive and intelligently programmed compilation of the unique Irish songwriter’s works which over 22 tracks displayed O’Sullivan’s natural ability to be gentle, deep, rocky, tongue-in-cheek and humane in his material and delivery. It didn’t occur to me that they would or could top this set however the label now present a staggering 43-cut double CD that adds a lot more from more Gilbert’s recent records and a lot of choice album selections that deserve a listen. Again the running order works. Just when you think you may have the artist sussed, a quite different composition jumps out. If there is a unifying factor, it’s the natural and kind-hearted approach to the human condition that is manifest in these works and especially in the lyrics. As Gilbert told me, he doesn’t write about dragons and spaceships, he can leave that to others. But he’s not a musical Lowry, the depth is never that far away and it’s never saturated with preaching. In a sense, though I’ve not yet raised this with him yet, he might just be a cultural bedfellow of John Sebastian – rhythmic, melodic, punchy when needed and a producer of songs that can be arranged, stretched, embellished. We did agree in conversation that Randy Newman is a key figure to G O’S and his respect for Newman is warm and evident.

The big hits are all here – Nothing Rhymed, the radio perennial, the pop-funk of Get Down with its infuriatingly catchy ascending refrain, Matrimony a song so evocative it’s monochrome, Alone Again (Naturally) still as melodic a lament as you could ever find and the plaintive and not over-emoted Clair…..

There’s no need to dig for other treasures, there are plenty here. The almost-McCartney No Way (or is Paul almost-O’Sullivan?) with its lovely coasting string arrangement is a delight. I Guess I’ll Always Love You, a song of sweet resignation; You Are You with its steady tread and whiff of TV themes like Steptoe and Only Fools. Out Of The Question has a lead line that twists as O’Sullivan pours out his frustration – probably at being beguiled – against Alpert-flavoured horns. Happiness Is Me And You may not be as familiar but it’s a gorgeous love song and nods to Bacharach-David perhaps. Houdini Said is reflective and baroque in delivery, the backing kept sparse for effect, call & response vocal work and all. Jazzy flute completes the picture. Can’t think Straight is a bit Disney for me on the strings but then a phone call to Mary then intervenes, a bit of a curio but pure O’Sullivan all the same AND it features Peggy Lee!

The electric piano sound on Lost A Friend is beautiful and the lyric intriguing as it touches on Presley and Lennon. Gilbert, you should have offered this to Billy Paul RIP…Doing What I Know is strident and has Gilbert pondering aloud on his craft and more, with fabulous bass runs pumping along. The bluesy Thunder & Lightning is fun and shows his funkier side. Like Leo Sayer, this man can swing on this sort of number. The horns croon the lines back and a neat tenor solo jumps out of the mix. You Got Me Going gets even rockier and sounds like a great set-opener. Gilbert sounds just as comfortable on this sort of song as ballads or whatever as he always gets his keys right. The biting guitar sounds spot-on.

Suddenly we’re in the Latin lilt of Made In Love and it’s irresistible, wry lyrics and all plus deft use of counterpoint handclaps. Now this could be Jimmy Buffett but no, it’s Gilbert O’Sullivan…and we’re at the end of Disc One !

The companion record has much more in the way of striking songs, including Ooh Baby He’s not shouted yet and he won’t. So What is edgy funk in its musical backdrop, with boomy drums and it’s evident that this composer listens to so much to refine his own canon of songs, better still he’s not tempted to imitate an American voice. The tempo might be more Commodores than you’d expect but O’Sullivan still makes it his own, sombre bridge and all. I Wish I Could Cry has maybe the best vocal performance on the set, a fine melody and an ache that steers away from corn.

Miss My Love Today has something about the lyric puts me in mind of Donovan but is in soul territory, phased Rhodes used as the current. What a great duet this would make..hey, he takes splendid backing singers on tour, make that a suggestion…

Stick In The Mud is a storming rock number with Geoff Whitehorn guitar snarling around the changes, this one could really surprise you. I Don’t Love You also rocks out with a buzzy arrangement and grainy horns. Because Of You uses the pattering chug that is one of O’Sullivan’s trademarks, the strings here have a thick warmth that sounds cinematic in tone. Bear With Me has input from Graham Gouldman I do believe and is pleasant and catchy. Closing cut End-vironmental Piece touches on matters ecological.

So, two and a half hours of a craftsman at work. No fireworks but plenty of bite in with the melodies and memorable chord progressions. Top musicians on all the sessions. But most of all a guy being himself, no matter how open-minded he may be to other musics and styles’s Gilbert O’Sullivan you’re hearing here, friends and though we champion new acts all the time here at Just Listen To This we are just as keen to appreciate established quality performers.

Gilbert O'Sullivan

Pete Sargeant

Gilbert O’Sullivan ‘The Essential Collection’ is out now on Union Square/BMG. In addition, Gilbert O’Sullivan will be performing at Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, United Kingdom on Thursday 20th October 2016. Tickets are available here:

More shows will be announced. For more information visit his official website here:

** Thanks Sacha, thanks Gilbert)