Both the best and worst thing that happened to Donovan early in his career was being compared to Bob Dylan: best because he gained significant publicity from it, and worst because he gained significant publicity from it. Here was a curly-haired, acoustic guitar-strumming, harp-blowing troubadour, a traditionalist on one hand (Donovan even covered a Woody Guthrie song on his debut album) but with something new to say on the other. The comparison was even played for laughs in the documentary Don't Look Back, in which Dylan can be seen taking his supposed rival less than seriously as a contender. Donovan quickly lost the Dylan clone tag and established himself as an original voice once he went electric with hits like "Sunshine Superman" and "Mellow Yellow," but his earliest folk recordings were quite charming and often rather beautiful, as this collection reminds. The 20 songs on The Very Best of the Early Years find Donovan's proclivity for mystical imagery already fully formed ("Catch the Wind," "The Summer Day Reflection Song"), his melodicism finely developed ("Tangerine Puppet," "To Try for the Sun"), his leanings toward jazz ("Cuttin' Out") and blues ("Hey Gyp") firmly in place, and his singing and instrumental work quite impressive. As a lyricist Donovan, like the other guy, applied the poet's touch, but he largely avoided the heavy-handedness that often characterized Dylan's early work. Dylan, in his antiwar and miserable-state-of-affairs songs ("Masters of War," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall"), was often caustic, while Donovan, who borrows his antiwar songs from others (Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" and Mick Softley's "The War Drags On"), goes for messages that are direct but comparatively simplistic. Donovan was clearly headed into more fanciful writing than in topical songs anyway, and although his taste for covers was finely attuned (his love for guitarist/singer Bert Jansch's work is already clear in the two songs rendered here, "Do You Hear Me Now" and "Oh Deed I Do"), it's Donovan's carefully crafted originals like "Sunny Goodge Street," "Colours" and "Turquoise" that indicate where he'd soon be heading. The material here is culled from early singles and EPs, and from Donovan's first two albums, What's Bin Did and What's Bin Hid and Fairytale. These recordings were a tentative start but their quality is unquestionable.
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AllMusic Review by Jeff Tamarkin