Under the production aegis of Andrew Oldham, Donovan amassed a small army of stellar backup musicians for Essence to Essence, which followed its predecessor, Cosmic Wheels, by only ten months, indicating that he was intent on reestablishing his status in the pop music world. Although the album was recorded at Morgan Studios in England, its session players were a mix of British and American names including not only locals Peter Frampton, Nicky Hopkins, Danny Thompson, and Ray Cooper, but also a batch of people apparently flown in from Los Angeles, including Jim Gordon, Carl Radle, Bobby Whitlock, and Russell Kunkel,. Thus, various former members of Wings and Derek and the Dominos rubbed shoulders with the standard backup staff for James Taylor and other singer/songwriters, as well as some stars in their own right. They came together to support Donovan on a collection of songs in which he ruminated about matters political, religious, and philosophical, starting with the environmentally conscious "Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth." The songwriter at times seemed to be bucking himself up against the travails of love and life, often by taking a generalized tone that tended to lead to the capitalized reference to, say, "the Dignity of Man" and "the Dance of Life." At times, the music put across such lyrical vagaries, such as "Yellow Star" with its reggae beat, and the lyrical "Sailing Homeward," the gentle closing ballad that featured Carole King and Tom Scott. But the light tone and humor that had characterized Donovan at his best was missing, replaced by a forced gaiety amid some dark reflections.
AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann