Reunited with Mitchell Froom, the songsmith Sexsmith produces another beguiling release.
"I'm a 35-year-old guy from Canada and I don't write groove-oriented music. I can’t expect too much," Ron Sexsmith was quoted as saying in 1999, when quizzed on the commercial prospects and potential of his work. Well, Sexsmith is now a 49-year-old guy from Canada who’s still not writing groove-oriented music but who’s nonetheless proved to be an enduring artist: critically feted, often covered, though not, as he sagely predicted, a household name. That position seems to have frustrated Sexsmith somewhat, though, and his last release, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer, overseen by Metallica producer Bob Rock, suggested (like 2004’s Retriever) a belated attempt at commercial breakthrough. Slicker than Sexsmith’s average, the album proved a modest success, while its accompanying documentary, Love Shines, gained acclaim at a number of festivals.
Still, much of Sexsmith’s appeal as an artist has always rested upon the fact that he seems like a musician out of time in many ways, an artist who’d have likely been a star in the '70s singer-songwriter Golden Age that influenced him so deeply, but whose low-key, modest approach ("my main objective is to try and stay out of the way of the song. I want to write songs that are good whether I'm singing them or not") is less suited to our pushier period. It’s telling that when asked to name his all-time favourite albums, the most recent release Sexsmith mentioned was 1977’s Knillssonn. "Even when Harry was writing sad songs, there was a sweetness to them," Sexsmith explained. "They make you think life isn’t so bad after all…He sounds like he’s your friend."
And so with his 12th album, Forever Endeavour, Sexsmith goes back to basics, pretty much, reuniting with Mitchell Froom (producer of his first three albums and 2006’s Time Being) for a short set of unassertive yet quietly immersive songs that -- while not reaching the standard of 2008’s exquisite Exit Strategy for the Soul -- prove beguiling. Blandness sometimes encroaches, but Froom (a more sympathetic producer for Sexsmith than he’s sometimes proved for other artists) provides an appealingly dreamy, Bacharach/David-esque ambience here, with strings, woodwind and brass tastefully complementing Sexsmith’s guitar-work. There are also sterling contributions from drummers Pete Thomas and Matt Chamberlain and pedal steel maestro Greg Leisz.
As often, Sexsmith’s best songs work their spell by stealth, frequently sounding undistinguished on a first encounter but gradually working their way into the listener’s head and heart. Given the throat cancer scare that he underwent in 2011, it’s no surprise that memory, mortality and the preciousness of relationships are much on his mind throughout. A wistful, ruminative mood pervades tracks like the gorgeously melancholic opener "Nowhere to Go", the rueful "If Only Avenue" and the elegant "Deepens with Time", while Sexsmith’s delivery has now acquired a thickness, a grainy quaver, that accentuates the poignancy of a number of songs here.
But melancholia isn’t the only note that the album sounds. "Me, Myself and Wine" sets its solitary’s mantra to woozy Dixieland horns. The witty, spry "Sneak Out the Back Door" sees courage rather than defeat in beating the retreat. The silky, infectious "Blind Eye" sounds like a lost Brill Building classic. And "The Morning Light" ends the album in a gently affirmative manner with the narrator and his partner’s anticipation of the coming day.
Ultimately, Forever Endeavour is a slight piece of work but its modesty proves both charming and refreshing overall. Like his '70s hero, Sexsmith continues to find the sweetness in sadness. And he, too, sounds like he’s your friend.