[3 September 2008]
When a pop/rock artist decides to put out an album of soul music, it’s usually a telltale sign that he’s getting bored. That’s because when you get down to it, your typical genre fling more often seems to grow out of some kind of identity crisis than any genuinely well-developed concept or thorough understanding of the genre at hand. With some artists, the crisis will stem from the elusive question “Who am I?” Or, alternatively (as it is with Paul McCartney albums), “Can’t I be someone else?” Either way, the results tend to be extremely unpredictable.
With that in mind, it’s hard to say what motivated Ron Sexsmith to record this summer’s Exit Strategy of the Soul, a piano-led, ballad-heavy collection of blue-eyed soul that finds the Canadian singer/songwriter sounding pretty much like he always has. For one thing, Sexsmith has always lived between genres (as singer/songwriters often do). Therefore, if you’ve heard any of his previous albums, you’ll probably be able to imagine what Exit Strategy sounds like. The main reason: for Sexsmith, releasing an album of soul music can’t really be considered genre-hopping at all.
As a singer, he’s always had the kind of dexterity it takes to turn a phrase that most rockers would be content to communicate in the most plaintive tones into something much more multidimensional. He has the blessing of a soul singer’s natural warmth and an instantly recognizable texture that’s always infused his songs with that little something extra, but on Exit Strategy it doesn’t always carry him far enough.
The exception to this is “Brandy Alexander”, a song that very gracefully combines Sexsmith’s beguiling Brill Building classicism with the sort of reverential enthusiasm that made Dusty in Memphis one the best genre albums ever made. While it goes without saying that there’s no easy equation for writing a great R&B song, it is true that the best soul music tends to be about redemption. It’s about finding a light at the end of the tunnel, or seeking something triumphant in the face of heartbreak. This is especially true of “Brandy Alexander”, which is lyrically imprecise enough to be about love, even if it’s really a song about alcoholism. However you want to take it though, it’s really more about feeling than anything else. At root, it’s a piece of music that draws its strength from its conveyance of the giddy belief (it comes back like muscle memory) that you can overcome any possible obstacle—a sense of righteous empowerment.
It’s this sense that’s in regrettably short supply on Exit Strategy of the Soul. Apart from this, it’s often the case that one song sounds indistinguishable from the next. As is common with albums so self-consciously devoted to a particular sound, the instrumentation is too strictly consistent from track to track. While “Brandy Alexander” and its side two counterpart “Brighter Still” are inspired compositions, the rest of the material simply can’t keep up. In the end, Sexsmith proves that he has a ready understanding of how soul music ought to sound, but not necessarily what it takes to write it.