Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart. (Psalms 51:6)
I remember when I first heard Ron Sexsmith; not in a JFK-getting-shot sense, but generally that it was in the first half of the 1990s and the song was Secret Heart. It seemed like a good song, and the singer of it seemed likely to be a solid sort. Some people were saying that he was “the new Bob Dylan.” Well, just like all the other new Bob Dylans, he was nothing of the kind and that manner of talk didn’t help him; he was, instead, the current Ron Sexsmith. And that wasn’t such a bad thing at all. Sexsmith is a (Canadian) songwriter with a gift for an instantly seductive pop/folk/rock melody, a facile way with a lyrical narrative and the ability to produce really charming and sometimes deeply poignant turns-of-phrase. Better yet, he can combine all those elements into a whole that seems utterly unforced. (That seamless combination may be the toughest trick for would-be pop songwriters — not to mention some practicing ones.) He’s essentially a confessional-type songwriter, but one who generally avoids tripping into the excessively lugubrious or precious.
Back in the ’90s, fellows like Ron Sexmith, fine though they might be, were not my speed. I was listening to music from bygone eons. Lately, I’ve caught up with some of what is now his older work. Listening to a lot of it in succession, one has the almost inevitable impression of “sameness;” there’s no question he has a certain formula or methodology to most of his writing, but still, when it works, it works very well, and it works pretty frequently.
His new album, Long Player Late Bloomer, features thirteen almost preternaturally well fashioned pop songs. Produced by Bob Rock with the goal of (finally maybe) launching Sexsmith into the commercial big time, it doesn’t duck from the songs’ strengths at all, but sets out to pull the listener in and keep you right there. There are a few songs that are nothing less than irresistible: Get In Line, Believe It When I See It, the title track, Love Shines, Miracles … well, gee, that’s more than a few, isn’t it? At its best the album simply soars, and it never really dives. It’s hard not to break out in a big smile at hearing one killer melody and dead-on song after another, put over with warmth, sincerity and energy. After living with it for a while, my feeling is that it’s a genuinely great album by a very, very good songwriter. I’m uncertain as to whether Ron Sexsmith rates as a “Great Songwriter,” because his songs, while attractive and often very moving, rarely seem to intimate something that you’ve just never ever heard before. That’s not meant as a put-down, but simply as a perspective.
Of-course there are many merely very good singer-songwriter types who are hugely successful — not to mention the ones who aren’t any good at all. Ron Sexsmith has never sold very much, despite a vast amount of acclaim from critics and fellow musicians (for instance that ubiquitous taste-monger Elvis Costello). It may seem absurdly trivial to suggest the following, but I’ll do so anyway: He ought to smile once or twice in photos, and in videos. Look at his existing album covers, and they all show him looking either moody or miserable, depending on your judgment. This might do if he cut the figure of a super handsome lady killer and matinée idol, but Ron Sexsmith by nature looks like a sad sack. Instead of magnifying that aspect, he ought to throw in some counterpoint; if not a wide toothy smile, at least a mischievous grin occasionally. While there is melancholy in his music, there is also a lot of joy and love of life — the melodies alone communicate that.
There’s a recently-released documentary called “Love Shines,” which follows Ron Sexsmith through the recording of this album and covers his life and career generally. While it certainly seems intended to boost him, I’m not so sure, after watching it, that it actually does. The film maker obviously settled on a narrative of Ron Sexsmith as a sad and luckless genius, loved by all kinds of famous rock and pop figures but either congenitally afraid of success or somehow doomed to misstep after misstep and mysterious but permanent obscurity. No doubt that narrative seemed quite poignant in the editing room, but — just like the total lack of smiling mentioned above — I think that it really doesn’t serve Sexsmith very well at all.
I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that what Ron Sexsmith does best is make music, rather than pose for photos. I think that Long Player Late Bloomer is in almost all respects a joy, and I ought to rate it at least 9 1/2 out of 10. However, there is one significant caveat: like too many CDs of modern times, it has been deliberately mastered too loud. That’s not the artist’s fault, but it still diminishes the pleasure it’s going to bring to a listener. While playing it, I’ve had the urge to get up and turn it down many times, especially on the “quieter” tunes, but that does no good; many elements of the recording still seem to blare to the point of distortion. No doubt the vinyl release is mastered in a kinder way, but no one should have to buy that and a turntable to hear the music properly. So — although I am loath to add one more tragedy to Sexsmith’s seemingly ill-starred career — the CD itself is only getting 8 out of 10 from me today.
[UPDATE: It has since been made available on vinyl and in that format it is 10 out of 10!]
Rating (of original CD version): Eight out of ten lead pipes.