Despite garnering favourable reviews and even though the artist performed doggedly as an opening act for a number of established artists, Judee Sill's eponymous 1971 debut album sold poorly and failed to propel the Californian musician to stardom.
Undeterred, she returned for 1973's Heart Food with engineer Henry Lewy (whom she affectionately called the "audio alchemist") and a band of stellar musicians and backing vocalists for a record altogether livelier and more confident than her debut.
Heart Food is similar to its predecessor in that it features Sill's multi-tracked vocals prominently, and that guitar and piano are prevalent, but other than that it's a forward step. There's no mistaking that it's a Judee Sill record, and all her hallmarks are there, but this is also a much more diverse record and Sill sounds more confident in trying new things - see the inner sleeve pictures where she acts as conductor during an orchestral session.
Sill's songs have a hymnal purity to them at times, as on the solo piano "When the Bridegroom Comes," written with then-boyfriend David Bearden. The best of these hymnal songs is surely "The Kiss," a timeless and beautiful celebration of romantic union with painstaking orchestration. It has an eerie, ethereal quality, and is renowned as one of Sill's finest compositions.
The arrangements and orchestrations, done by Sill herself, complement the songs and the music and if there were any doubts about her abilities she certainly proves herself an expert songwriter and visionary with this album. Listen out, for example, for the ebullient backing vocals on "Down Where the Valleys Are Low," her most gospel-inspired song replete with organ licks and vocalists evoking a gospel choir.
Elsewhere, the themes of the first album are recalled on "The Vigilante" and "The Pearl," although they're less fragile and more forthright. The opening "There's A Rugged Road" is possessing of a memorable melody and strong structure, which is the case with every song here. The delicacy of the first album is replaced by something beefier (the rollicking "Soldier of the Heart," which should have been a major hit, which rocks harder than Sill's previous pop attempt, the glorious "Jesus Was A Cross Maker") but the subtle intricacies remain: on the surface, this sounds simple and effortless, and that's testament to Sill's amazing abilities.
The album's defining moment, however, must be the epic "The Donor," which displays the majority of Sill's many talents. The first four minutes or so are devoted to choral chanting and haunting piano lines, and the song becomes a beautiful, grand choral requiem. The chorus of "Kyrie Eleison" is stunning, but the dynamics of the song make it more like a suite and one of the defining moments on any record by any singer-songwriter. It's hard to imagine anybody else even daring to attempt something as grand and opulent as this and having the audacity and skills to pull it off.
The 2004 reissue of Heart Food features demos and unreleased songs as well as informative liner notes. The demos are pared-down and solo, so it's interesting, for example, to hear "The Donor" sans orchestration, and "Soldier of the Heart" without the full band backing. Another strong unreleased song, "The Desperado," is also featured.
This album didn't even get reviewed by major rock critics, and was largely ignored by the public. It's a crying shame, because this music is melodic and pleasant, with Sill's voice never outrageous and her songs beautiful and accessible. The reissue, however, seems to have invigorated new interest in the singer.
Sill never released another album in her lifetime and sessions for a third record were aborted. She died in obscurity and poverty in 1979 at the age of 35 leaving behind two small-selling but extraordinary records. If you don't buy or listen to Heart Food, it's your loss.