Certain tracks on Beat Cafe sound like they could be outtakes from Donovan’s 1967 album, Mellow Yellow, but I’ll let you decide if that’s a good thing. On “Young Girl Blues” from that album, Donovan sang: “You are but a young girl, working your way through the phonies.” Mr. Leitch recently turned 58 so it’s rather disturbing to hear him hitting on a girl with “painted toes,” even if it’s only metaphorical. Come to think of it, he sounds eerily like the guys he warned us about nearly 40 years ago.
Musically, Beat Cafe is delicious. The basic trio—Donovan on acoustic guitar, drummer Jim Keltner and acoustic bassist Danny Thompson—provides a languid folk/jazz groove, with Thompson’s bass dominating the mix and providing plenty of kicks. Donovan, whose voice retains its youthful range, sings and scats his minimal lyrics over Thompson’s bouncy rhythms but they rely heavily on New Age clichés: “I’ll yang your yin,” “The answer is the question,” “From out of the no and into the there,” you get the idea. Pseudo-philosophical ramblings like these give earnest spiritual seekers a bad rap.
The weakest track, and sole acknowledgement of age, is “Do Not Go Gentle,” a paraphrase of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” a poem of terror and desperation. Donovan, however, sounds like he’s slipping into a drug-induced coma; no passion, no apparent inkling of mortality. While there are some impressive offerings here—the strongest of which is “The Cuckoo,” a well-known traditional American love song—you’re in a bit of trouble when the best song on an album isn’t your own.