I’m sure that if you are a music lover then you’ve had the experience of being suddenly struck by a song you’d heard before but had not been especially moved by until then. Music being what it is, and our brains being what they are, it just works out that way sometimes. The song might have just passed over or through you until it happened to find its moment: a moment when the right nerve of yours was exposed to be touched by it.
My own nerves are pretty well exposed these days whenever I’m on an airplane, which I have been several times lately. It’s nothing to most people, as I well know—they are blessedly able to casually leaf through the in-flight magazine or watch some meatball movie on the screen as if they’re sitting safely at home—but for me the emotions are already rising to the surface as the plane starts taxiing, and I’m praying and trying (vainly) to get my spirit right with the Man Upstairs. And at the cruising altitude of 35,000 feet or whatever insane number it is, my emotions continue to be sharpened by the knowledge that I am constantly a second or two away from a helpless and traumatic death if anything goes wrong with the plane. My only flights nowadays being trans-Atlantic ones to visit family, this is a long time to spend reconciling oneself with such finalities.
I don’t want to die watching a crass film or playing a computer game, so if I’m not reading the Good Book (with a strong drink in my hand) you’ll find me listening to music on my own player, where almost every track is a pretty decent one to hear while you’re dying—even if I do say so myself. On the latest trip I was just letting it shuffle everything, not playing by artist or album.
So it was that at one point I heard some gentle guitar playing begin and the voice of Ron Sexsmith appear, singing the song “Autumn Light,” which is actually listed as a “bonus” track on his most recent album, Forever Endeavor. That album has a bunch of terrific songs, and I simply hadn’t stopped to notice this one. There’s nothing flashy about it. Unusually for Ron, it’s a collaboration, and even more oddly it is with an old-guard kind of lyricist, a fellow from Blighty by the name of Don Black, who wrote the words for such songs as “Born Free,” “To Sir with Love,” and “Diamonds Are Forever,” and has collaborated often on musicals with Andrew Lloyd Webber. You wouldn’t automatically think of Ron Sexsmith and Don Black as being in the same orbit, but whatever twist of gravity brought them together is one for which I at least am very grateful.
Hearing this slow and gentle ballad begin with the words “autumn light” automatically brought to the fore of this listener’s consciousness the great old standard “Autumn in New York,” and thus primed me to start getting wistful and wet-eyed, because I was after all heading home to New York, a city I love as much as one can love a place, and to a person there who I love as much as one can love a person. Yet, I had no reason to think the song was actually set in New York City. And then, a few bars later, came the bridge: “Central Park / Shone like a yellow stone / All of the birds have flown / You were mine alone.” And then there was nothing this poor sap could do except cry helplessly. The tears, however wet, were silent ones, and fortunately no one noticed, or I do believe the plane might have been turned around for an emergency landing.
The song is lovely, and perfectly understated, which is perhaps a major part of the reason it might go by without notice. Ron Sexsmith is about as facile and wonderful a lyricist as has been on the pop scene in the last couple of decades, and his songs are notable for how perfectly melded are the words and melodies, but Don Black’s words here do not sound at all alien with Ron’s tune; the composition sounds as easy and meant-to-be as one of Ron’s best by himself. Now, I can be a little skeptical of professional lyricists sometimes (post the likes of Lorenz Hart and Johnny Mercer), seeing some of the really successful ones as lucky buggers in the musical collaborators that fate handed them (Bernie Taupin: I’m talking to you), but Don Black clearly knows what he’s doing, and does it here with an unstrained grace, unafraid of the simple and the direct, and treading ground where other wordsmiths have trod so many times while somehow managing to leave his own new footprints. That’s not easy to do. Some wouldn’t bother trying. But then they wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding.
I remember autumn light
Your face in autumn light
I always do this time of night
Sexsmith’s melody is likewise without strain while being just intricate enough, and his singing on the track is perfect for the sweetly melancholy core of the song.
And blew out autumn’s flame
And you walked away in autumn light
Love walked away in autumn light
You might wonder if the singer’s love walked away as in dumping him, or if their relationship ended by mutual but sad consent, or if she left him in a much more final way, by departing to the world to come. It is ambiguous. The song is one that can fill many spaces in the listener’s own heart. It certainly filled this listener’s heart to overflowing, and will now be a treasured song all the way till the end of it all.
Which I just hope won’t happen on a plane over the Atlantic …
Below, a live version via a fan on YouTube.