[10 March 2011]
The conceit of Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith’s latest record, his 12th in 20 years, is that he’s a late bloomer with a long life ahead of him. That may be. His career recently took a commercial spike thanks to a duet with crooner Michael Bublé. Emmylou Harris’ forthcoming release will take its title from one of his songs that she covers on the disc. And, well, maybe life just happens to be good for him right now.
That’s nice. He’s a deserving fellow. He’s paid his dues. And blah blah blah. Who cares? The issue at hand is whether his new album is worth buying. That’s a tricky question. Sexsmith masterfully writes and performs a bakers dozen worth of savory pop confections. The tunes, produced by Bublé and Metallica producer Bob Rock, are snappy and sophisticated in their wordplay and instrumentation. Sonically, they sound beautiful; Rock offers Sexsmith a rich palette of musical colors. Every song comes off as crisp and sharp as a digital photograph. But listening to them is like looking at pictures of someone else’s kids. They become a bore.
The problem is Sexsmith has nothing substantial to say. His concerns are lightweight. Consider his litany of self-blame, “Get in Line”. Sexsmith tells all those he’s offended or hurt to stand in line if you want to take your whacks at him. But what does he confess to? The metaphorical spilling of milk. He’s just a schlump who does everything wrong. That’s too easy. It’s an empty sentiment cleverly invoked. That criticism can be applied to every track.
The closest he gets to something real is the story song “Michael and His Dad”, where he declares “It takes much more than love to make it through” for a single parent with a limited income to make it in this world. However, Sexsmith just sets up the listener for a sucker punch. You see, it takes the love of two people for each other—dad and son—to make it, not just the love of one person. You don’t have to be Hilary Clinton to know it takes more than that to successfully raise a child. The cloying resolution negates the power of the set-up, and the result is that we care less about the characters at the end than we did at the beginning of the tune.
Maybe I am being to hard on Sexsmith. As Paul McCartney used to sing, “What’s the matter with silly love songs? Sexsmith has those here, and while tracks like “Middle of Love”, “Nowadays”, and “Miracles” may sound inspirational and heartfelt to some, I always disliked that McCartney song and find these just as saccharine. At least the other cuts that deal with witty observations yet do not seem to say much, such as “Eye Candy” (about drunken socialites), have a snarky bit of fun to them.
Some say great art comes from suffering. I’d like to think that wasn’t necessarily true. But in Sexsmith’s case, his music was much more interesting when he was unhappy. I am glad for the person that he is doing well these days. This music has a nice shiny surface. That may be enough for some people. But most people’s tastes run deeper and darker.