Ron Sexsmith is that rarest of artist that everyone envies and nobody wants to be. Throughout his career, he has been called “a songwriter’s songwriter”, a man whose knack for breezy, infectious melodies and poetic, earnest lyrics is nothing short of obscene. His talents have earned him endless accolades from critics, and fans such as Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, and Chris Martin. Even classical acts, such as the Brodsky Quartet, have covered his work, which goes to show that Sexsmith, indeed, is a songwriter. When the folks with the strings and record collections full of Beethoven and Stravinsky start covering your work… well… you know you’ve got something.
And yet, being a “songwriter’s songwriter” is like being the gal with the “great personality” who never gets past the first, blind date. Like great personalities, great songwriting talents will only earn you sincere admiration if not paired with something more. And, however unfair this may be, Sexsmith’s career has suffered—in part—because he’s not particularly sexy, charismatic, or any of those other things that have absolutely nothing to do with talent but play a large role in selling albums. As sad as it is to confess and confront, music is like politics in that competence will get you precisely as far as it is matched by charisma. In this regard, Sexsmith is like the Joe Biden to, say, Bono’s Barack Obama: Sexsmith is infinitely more knowledgeable about his craft, but since he’s not exactly exciting, he’s destined to remain in certain confines.
Time Being, Sexsmith’s latest release, is further proof that he deserves an audience wider than music aficionados and pop stars. Full of his trademark effortless melodies and masterful musicianship, the album was released last Spring in Canada and England, but is now being released in the U.S. through Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks label. Thank you, Mr. Sutherland—Time Being is one of those gems that reveals its treasures slowly, and you appreciate it more for doing so. Combining rock and folk and flirting with jazz—if only in that the music is so skillfully played—it’s a collection of songs that’s so exceptional (with a few exceptions), it’s sure to be ignored. Shitty how that works. Take a song like “Cold Hearted Wind”, for example. It’s bouncy, it’s pretty, it’s catchy, it’s… never going to make it onto the charts.
As on previous albums, Sexsmith’s voice sounds like a mixture of Sir Paul and Morrissey—a mixture of prim affability and concisely-enunciated syllables. Listening to his boyish, proper voice, you doubt that he could ever write an aggressive-sounding track, but that’s irrelevant anyhow: Sexsmith specializes in pretty, and he does it better than just about anyone else. You need only listen to “Snow Angel” for proof of this; a folk lullaby that softly rolls along, its melody is as gorgeous and delicate as a sleeping infant nestled in the warm serenity of a crib—and if the preciousness of that description made you cringe, then think “awwwww…”, you have a perfect grasp of the song. Mr. Sexsmith’s music often prompts that sort of reaction, simply because he’s not ashamed of creating something beautiful, even if he risks going overboard. Thus, when he succeeds, we get songs like “Reason for Our Love”, which is simply astounding in its beauty and nuanced craftsmanship.
Sexsmith isn’t perfect, however, and he occasionally writes the bad tune. Perhaps this is another reason why songwriters like McCartney, Costello, and Martin like Sexsmith—they might recognize part of themselves in him, for he has a tendency to indulge the same bad impulses they occasionally do, and he blunders in similar fashion. Sexsmith can sound as preciously cloying as McCartney, as too adult-contemporary-pseudo-jazz-lite as Costello, and as shamelessly goofy as Martin. Unfortunately, those tendencies surface on Time Being in songs like “Jazz at the Bookstore” and “The Grim Trucker”, the former of which sounds as disgustingly yuppie as its title, and the latter of which tries to sound like a Beatles song circa Sgt. Pepper’s but instead sounds like one of McCartney’s solo attempts to recapture his former glory. Thankfully, a Sexsmith misfire is a rare phenomenon, and the majority of this album is additional testament to his brilliance.
Unfortunately, Time Being won’t bring Sexsmith any more success, but only because the masses just do not appreciate songs that don’t reap immediate rewards. Like a piece of conceptual art or an independent film, his songs require time and repeated exposures and a willingness to interact before the genius is apparent. Some of the melodies on this album are so subtle and nuanced that they don’t burrow into your brain until a few days later when you suddenly find yourself singing them while going about your daily activities. But this is precisely why Sexsmith is, indeed, a songwriter’s songwriter: He could take the obvious, arm-waving approach to songwriting, where the hooks scream out for attention and approval, but he’s too earnest to do that. For now, then, he’ll just have to settle on impressing geniuses and music nerds—which probably isn’t that bad after all.