What is it about a great Ron Sexsmith song that can be so very pleasing and satisfying, right on the first hearing? I was trying to work that out while listening to one after another on his latest album, Forever Endeavor. For me at least I think it’s something like this: One has heard in one’s lifetime a whole lot of songs, by artists one likes a little or a lot, and there are so many instances where a song begins with promise but instead of fulfilling that promise it gets stuck, or reaches for a height it cannot attain. Sexsmith at his best can turn out a tune that is just so right, musically and lyrically, and seems to arrive and unfold effortlessly. He writes with an innate knowledge of so much of what’s come before him, and blends musical and lyrical references without strain.
Take just one song on this record. We’ve all heard of “Lonely Avenue,” but Ron Sexsmith gives us “If Only Avenue,” with a perfectly wistful and irresistible melody.
With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It’s strange, as people we’re prone to dwell
On things that we can’t undo
And we’re liable to wander down
If Only Avenue
Cue the wonderfully languid riff that anchors the tune, and basically there’s nothing you can say about this short, unpretentious pop song other than that it is flawless, and could easily be taken for a standard written forty years ago. As on a number of other tracks, producer Mitchell Froom has added string arrangements that are understated and apropos. The whole thing is just a sheer pleasure.
Another great song is the uptempo “Snake Road,” a plea with the self to avoid past mistakes and temptations that is grounded with a healthy level of self-doubt and driven along with suitably down and dirty horns. (YouTube clip embedded below.)
Sexsmith is not superhuman, however, and for all the great tracks on this album, there are instances where even he doesn’t quite make it. The song “Blind Eye”—which has a lovely and elegiacal melody evoking some soulful song of peace like “A Change is Gonna Come”—ultimately doesn’t climb out of the lugubrious hole it presents to the listener: “Where all of the tears people cry / Fall on deaf ears / For we turn a blind eye.” I suspect he thought that invoking clichés one after another like this would make the listener think twice about their meaning, but sometimes when you pile on the clichés you’re just left with a pile of clichés. I think that the song would work better and be inspiring if it directed all that sadness somewhere, and funneled it towards some kind of hope … but Ron is not always the cheeriest fellow.
Still, melancholy or not, his talent is such as to be capable of inspiring great joy in discerning fans of popular music. This album does not disappoint in that regard. It also adds to the already-deep catalog of Sexsmith songs that really ought to be mined by quality singers seeking exceptional material.
His most recent previous album, Long Player Late Bloomer, was a tad more elevated than this one in terms in mood, and it’s an album I’d probably listen to every day; that is, if I could bear to listen to it at all. The mastering to CD was marred by way over-the-top dynamic range compression, making it sound earsplitting even with the volume knob at near-zero. I still don’t understand the motivation for that kind of desecration of great music. This new album appears to have been mastered with a little more kindness, so hopefully it will get the quantity of replays it deserves, which is a very considerable number.