After 12 studio albums, Canadian artist Ron Sexsmith has earned a reputation as a solid pop songwriter. He pens songs that are smart without being smarmy, clever without being cynical, and earnest without being shallow. No wonder his fans include musicians such as Paul McCartney and Elton John, individuals whose works share similar traits.
The Last Rider is being marketed as Sexsmith’s first real band album in that it includes his touring group (Don Kerr, drums; Jason Mercer, bass; Kevin Lacroix, guitar; Dave Matheson, piano). While it’s the case that the band members’ contributions are a bit more pronounced here, the results are not that different than the music on Sexsmith’s other records. The 15-tracks fall between two and a half and four minutes long and tell simple tails of people and places. The narrators are genial enough fellows who share a positive outlook but are experienced enough to know life doesn’t always work out as planned.
The songs are filled with soft reflections and clichés that initially seem insipid in a good-humored way. Sexsmith liltingly sings the amiable chorus of “Dreams Are Bigger” as if it were true: “If your dreams are bigger than your worries / you’ll never worry about your dreams” while the soft playing of a tuba and piano in the background suggest old-time values. But it’s clear that Sexsmith and company don’t believe this. They are whistling in the dark. Hence, they evoke the past to invoke the present and future. Dream on, indeed, because worrying never did anyone any good.
Sexsmith can get away with such platitudes because he doesn’t posit them as anything more than idle thoughts. One of pop music’s greatest virtues is that it doesn’t have to mean anything. Listening is a way of agreeably passing time, like having fun as a child. Sexsmith’s ambitions seem to be more affable than resolute. However, he’s no simpleton. While he may invoke childhood memories or a fool’s perspective, the songs double back on themselves to reveal insights that were not clear at their beginnings.
That’s why some of the best cuts here begin with reminiscences; eating breakfast as a kid, a treehouse with a sign that says ‘no girls aloud’, picking boysenberries, and such. This allows Sexsmith to paint an untroubled picture that he understands can’t last. Or as he sings, “The only trouble is / we’re going to leave it all behind.” Time changes everything.
“It’s who we are right now that matters,” Sexsmith croons. He acknowledges past mistakes and broken dreams. The fact that he and his lover are still here offers hope. Love can be evergreen if people adapt. “All these changes / will never change us,” he sings with bittersweet optimism.
The pleasures of The Last Rider are subtle. Despite the album’s amiable surfaces, Sexsmith purposely understates the perils of observing and thinking too much. The mellifluous surface hides the roughness underneath. When he sings a “Worried Song”, he begins by suggesting he was distressed in the past. The person to whom he sings has lifted him off his knees and filled his heart. But Sexsmith doesn’t stop there. He asks his lover to join him in harmony so that they can share the blues together. He’s still troubled, but now he’s not alone.