[12 August 2009]
Like many Americans, I often dream of moving to Canada. The natural beauty of the uninhabited landscapes, the cosmopolitan character of its big cities, the pastoral agricultural settings—not to mention the nation’s health plan and non-militaristic government policies—seem seductive and inviting. My forays across the border have all been pleasant and enjoyable. Singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing’s descriptions of life in the northern latitudes helps contribute to the myth of Canada as a worthy destination for those south of the border, not because he romanticizes the place (although he may do this a bit), but because he focuses on the people who live there. Fearing depicts them in all their flawed humanity, because he is one of them, first by birth and later by choice.
Consider the multiple-Juno Award-winning artist’s tune about travelling the breadth of Canada as a young child, “The Longest Road”. Looking back at his youth, he acknowledges his self-identification with the whole of the country. Fearing sings, “My heart was ever drawn to you / like a tongue to a broken tooth” as he, compares his painful personal journey to the exploration of a land that’s troubled, but one all the more valued because of its tenderness. The landmarks of the trip translate into private touchstones of a time and place. His intimate voice reveals the love he feels for both his individual memories and the collective history.
Or there’s the Neil Young-influenced “Home”, whose guitar and harmonica introduction, as well as its melody, calls to mind “Down By the River”. Back home is where he can unwind, close his eyes, and let go of the wheel. It’s a place where he can relax like nowhere else on earth. Fearing’s evocation of Young and other Canadian musicians is not accidental. During the middle of “Beguiling Eyes” he offers a lovely acoustic guitar rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” that suggests he knows what it means to grow up and see the world from more than one perspective, in addition to connecting with his country’s musical heritage.
The Canadian citizen also finds inspiration outside his nation’s borders. “The Finest Kind” pays homage to the British Richard Thompson both in terms of its guitar work and word phrasing. He spits out stanzas like, “I’ve been dumped, I’ve been sore / Hard to get ‘em and I got what for / I bought the ring but we fell apart / She bent my mind, she broke my heart / With one love letter the finest of the Dear John kind” in a style that purposely echoes Thompson ala “Tear Stained Letter” in wit, self-deprecation, and timbre.
Fearing purposely borrows from other artists too numerous to cite on his latest disc, The Man Who Married Music, a 15 song collection of 13 best-of tracks he chose from his past two decades of albums plus two more tunes recorded here for the first time. Fearing was born in Vancouver, spent much of his childhood in Dublin, and moved to the U.S., before finally returning to Canada and establishing himself as a musician. He may be most well-known as part of the band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, but this record suggests that he shines brightly on his solo efforts as well.
The two new songs show that he is as good as he ever was. Fearing delivers the lyrics about going off and coming home (both literally and metaphorically) with an emotional richness that simultaneously conveys the sorrows and pleasures of being apart and being together with the ones one loves. The natural flow of his guitar playing suggests a level of comfort with his instrument earned from experience. As the title tune suggests, he is wedded to his music. Listening to him perform offers the comfort of being around a happy couple in a long-term relationship.