The word you’re looking for is “cheesy”.
As co-front man for Canada’s alt-country institution Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy has always been at least a little bit cheesy. He loves sentimental stuff, is happy to sing about the very syrupy side of emotion, and doesn’t seem much to care if he’s hip at all.
I’ve always loved him for this, not because I’m drawn to the cheeseball sentiments he often revels in (I’m not), but because I see him as an uncommonly honest songwriter. I believe his open-heartedness, and trust that he isn’t aiming for schmaltz as much as that he just is a bit of a schmaltzy kinda guy. In other words, he is authentically cheesy which, for reasons most entertainingly enumerated in Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion, I tend to respect. So, there’s that.
But, more importantly, he is an astonishingly gifted singer and pop songwriter. His hooks are infectious. A welcome cross between Rodney Crowell and Jackson Browne (and his songwriting kinda falls in between their approaches too, come to think of it), Cuddy will always be the Paul McCartney of the Blue Rodeo thing. Your mother’s favourite Blue Rodeo guy, you know? But what makes him safe, sweet, and un-hip is precisely what makes him such an important and widely-revered artist in Canada. He appeals to a broad swath of the listening public, inspires countless musicians, and has the best voice in Canadian pop music since Richard Manuel. (Flame War!)
But yet, few music nerds and snobs and people just exactly like me will take a serious listen to his latest record Skyscraper Soul. And I get that. In the irony-drenched anti-sentimental scene that is “I’m-a-music-freak”, his stuff is basically impossible. I mean, there’s a song about the goddamn British royal wedding on there. And yet . . .
I think that’s actually the best way in to this record. It is, finally, an amazingly sad, even bleak song, a song about the tragic hope of the working class, wrapped in an apparently joyful exterior (which is something at which Cuddy has always excelled—see the old Blue Rodeo hit “Till I Am Myself Again”, a sneakily dark pop song in the tradition of “Help”!). It’s a Bruce Springsteen song dressed up like Ron Sexsmith.
“Wedding” is a song about a man who’s looking around at the sadness, the loneliness, the failures that surround him (broken family, recession, empty nest, even the falling rain appears to be “making a mess of this whole town”), and trying to find some stability. The reason that he figured “everyone watched the wedding” is that people, like him, are desperate for an escape, a fantasy into which they can project themselves. And then “Monday we were back on the bus / Driving through the neighbourhoods and factories that are us”.
As an interpretation of the massive popular appeal of the vestigial tail (especially in Canada!) that is the royal family and that ostentatious wedding amid the calamity of the 2008+ recession, this is pretty smart.
Skyscraper Soul is, simply, a complete record of grown-up uncool country-pop that sounds great all the way through. But, will we listen?
// Notes from the Road
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