Tender, string-soaked twelfth from Canuck songwriter…
As a teenager in smalltown Canada, Ron Sexsmith was known as ‘The Human Jukebox’, able to deliver the latest hit at a shout from the crowd. At times during his prolific career the singer has likewise seemed to want to please the public rather than himself – with the drum loops and beats of Retriever, for example, or 2011’s Long Player, Late Bloomer, a stab at commercial breakthrough overseen by Metallica producer Bob Rock.
The latter effort worked, kind of. The album tickled the lower end of the charts while Love Shines, the documentary about its making, offered an insight into Sexsmith’s shyness and musical fluency. He’ll likely never be as elevated as his heroes – Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Ray Davies – but Sexsmith remains a treasure, a quality songwriter whose downbeat disposition seemingly precludes outbursts of unfettered joy, anger or recrimination. Instead come reflection, insight, and the flicker of redemption.
Forever Endeavour majors in all those qualities. With producer Mitchell Froom at the console, the record often recalls Sexsmith’s first three albums, which Froom likewise polished, with the songs’ acoustic root spiced with arrangements: strings here, woodwind there, an occasional Duane Eddy twang. Sexsmith’s vocals remain unchanged, even at their strongest full of fragility, extra fragility if anything , reflecting the cloud of anxiety under which some of the songs were written in summer 2011, when a lump was discovered in the singer’s throat. The subsequent health scare proved unfounded, but Sexsmith recalls “lying in bed wondering if this thing inside was going to get me.”
The shadow of mortality lies over several numbers. “Deeper With Time” looks back to a childhood heritage that is rosy but nonetheless “leaves us scarred”. “If Only Avenue” is a slow, rueful piece of hindsight, while “Snake Road” resolves not to to return to “dark days when I couldn’t keep my thoughts straight, couldn’t keep my trousers on”, a droll observation set to soul horns.
The most affecting consideration of an early exit comes with the lightest touch. Set to solo guitar picking, the three minutes of “Sneak Out The Back Door” sound deceptively jaunty, and shift sneakily from feeling “a pang of anxiety at the society gathering” to thinking that “when life is over”, Ron would likewise exit the party with a minimum of fuss.
Not all of Forever Endeavour has the Reaper’s watchful eye on it. “Me Myself and Wine” is a happy-on-my-own piece with rag-time horns blowing lazily and a melody and delivery that might have come from the Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies. “Back Of My Hand”, with its chiming guitars and ascending middle eight, sounds like homage to another Sexsmith favourite, The Beatles. It starts unremarkably, as its composer “takes my thoughts out for a walk” before spiralling into the idea that God is looking down on humans like a kind of benign songwriter.
There is also a slew of love songs. “Nowhere Is”, “Lost In Thought” and “She Does My Heart Good” are gentle, count-your-blessings affairs that ponder where their author might have ended up without his current better half. All are given dreamy stringed treatment by Froom, who seems to have been listening to a lot of Bacharach/David. “Blind Eye” opens with trembling violins and a yearning French horn before a scratch guitar helps settle its empathic observations on the way of the world and the pain in which so many humans live.
The album’s final flourish ties together the personal and the universal, shifting cleverly from wishing a partner sweet dreams to a pledge to shine in the light of morning while life still flows. It’s a poetic piece that challenges its creator’s quavering voice on the high notes and is all the more moving for it; a graceful end to a delicate, moving album.
You’re back with Mitchell Froom…
They don’t make producers like him any more. He’s about arrangements whereas a lot of producers are coming from the technical side. I haven’t made such an orchestral album since my third.
It’s quite a contrast to Long Player, Late Bloomer.
That was a little slick but commercially it’s one of my most succesful albums. I had songs I thought were hits and I felt my career was circling round the drain.
That seems harsh. You have made a dozen albums! You undervalue your output.
Not the songs, I’m always proud of them, but the actual albums tend to disappoint – I don’t feel I ‘ve hit one out of the park so to speak.
Is there a difference between depression and being philosophical?
I got painted with that ‘melancholia’ brush early on, but I have always written uplifting and spiritual songs. That said, there is comfort in a sad song. I like those depression era songs like “Pennies from Heaven” that brough the nation together.
What are you reading?
I’m re-reading Dickens’ Martin Chuzzelewit in an old edition a friend gave me. It’s one of his funniest books, especially the part where he visits America and you can see that a lot really hasn’t changed.
INTERVIEW: NEIL SPENCER