Blandness sometimes encroaches, but Sexsmith’s 14th record proves, at its strongest, to be a typically warm, reassuring, and likeable piece of work.
“And life wouldn’t seem so hard / If I had a Saint Bernard,” croons Ron Sexsmith, on, um, “Saint Bernard”, the first single from his new album Carousel One. On first hearing, this gently goofy ditty -- which is all la-la-la-ing backing vocals, brisk drums and guitar licks (pun intended) as it describes a faithful pooch who fulfills the functions of friend and even stand-in for the narrator -- seems like a throwaway and an odd choice of lead single for an artist who’s most frequently associated with sincere and earnest ruminations on life and love. As it turns out, though, this endearingly silly ode to canine companionship turns out, against all odds, to be one of the highlights of the record.
There’s a great sense of hospitality to a Sexsmith album: a friendly, reassuring tone. The Canadian troubadour’s last great record, Exit Strategy of the Soul (2008), went beyond mere comfort, however, adding up instead to a graceful, moving masterpiece that evoked the 1970s singer-songwriter staples (Harry Nilsson, in particular) that are Sexsmith’s stated benchmarks while also sounding totally distinctive and fresh in its own right. Sexsmith hasn’t quite hit those heights again yet, however, and, though lighter in tone overall (the cover image announces the new album’s cheerier-than-usual disposition by boasting a rare snap of the singer smiling), Carousel One isn’t far removed in quality from Sexsmith’s last release, 2013's Forever Endeavor. It’s a pleasing but not always distinguished set that, at 14 tracks (16 including the two bonus songs), could have used a little light trimming.
The issue is that, with their similar palettes of drums, guitars and keyboards, and their tasteful country/folk tendencies merged with Bacharach-via-Beatles pop flourishes, Sexsmith’s albums (this is his 14th) can tend to blur on the listener, so much so that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish one from the next. Here, with Jim Scott replacing Mitchell Froom on production duties, and a stellar line-up of players including Bob Glaub, Don Heffington, and Jon Grabof, Sexsmith seems content to coast, making for a listening experience that’s likeable and engaging, but also very familiar. The album’s title, with its fairground associations, apparently alludes to the luggage belt at Los Angeles airport, at which bags from Toronto flights are collected. It’s an inadvertently apt image since there’s a sense of an artist going around in circles throughout this album.
Not that that will probably matter much to Sexsmith fans for whom consistency and predictability are doubtless part of this artist’s allure. And it must be acknowledged that, despite some blandness (“Lord Knows”, “All Our Tomorrows”, “No One”, and “Many Times” are all perfectly pleasant but never really ignite) the new album boasts some fetching, beautiful moments. As often, Sexsmith’s strongest songs work their spell by stealth, often sounding undistinguished on a first encounter before revealing their charms with repeated plays. ”Sure as the Sky” makes for an enticing and affirmative opener, but the album hits its stride as its mid-point, with the spry and supple love song “Lucky Penny” and the brisk and infectious “Getaway Car”. “Nothing Feels the Same Anymore”, meanwhile, offers prime Sexsmith melancholia in its tender, empathetic evocation of a loss of faith, while “Sun’s Coming Out” answers that song’s sadness with a lovely burst of optimism that welcomes with anticipation the coming day. Sexsmith’s voice is grainier now, with an uncertain quaver that helps to roughen out the smoothness of his sound, making the best of these tracks more interesting than the vocals of a slicker singer might render them.
Propelled by organ and twanging guitars, “Can’t Get Myself Together” is an irresistibly jaunty ode to emotional unavailability and the two bonus tracks -- the airy bossa nova “The Other Side” and the Charley Pride cover “Is Anybody Going To San Antone”-- both beguile. Never pushy, sometimes modest and mellow to a fault, it’s no surprise to find that Sexsmith is doing little to reinvent himself on this album, the cheeky charm of “Saint Bernard” notwithstanding. Still, the comforting warmth and tenderness of the strongest tracks here makes Carousel One an album worth some spins.