The charm of Canada’s Ron Sexsmith has always been the seeming ease and simplicity of his lyrical storytelling, at once immediate, unadorned and direct. His distinctive oft-wavering voice and unpredictable phrasings can make it seem at times as if he is performing on the fly, perhaps making up lyrics as he goes. This spontaneous style replete with vocal nuance is an end achieved only with superior talent and skill. Like fellow countryman Neil Young (in his more acoustic mode), Sexsmith has a gift for creating simple melodies that linger long after you’ve heard them. Perhaps this is one reason he has so many musicians in his corner, among them Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, Glenn Tilbrook, Rod Stewart and Anne Sophie Van Otter.
Now with his fourth collection, add Steve Earle to that growing list. Earle and his Twangtrust partner Ray Kennedy have taken the production reins on Sexsmith’s Blue Boy and haven’t betrayed the clever simplicity that makes his songs special. While you get a few musical surprises from these Nashville sessions, the arrangements never get in the way of Sexsmith’s emotive, warm voice and powerful storytelling. What’s even better news is that there’s more fun here than on Sexsmith’s previous release, 1999’s Whereabouts, and this is a definite step in the right direction. With a little more musical freedom, Sexsmith thrives.
Interscope Records wasn’t happy harboring on their roster a critic’s darling who wasn’t producing big hits or large sales. They suggested Sexsmith change producers to get out of his creative rut. It seems unlikely that any producer could turn the quiet Sexsmith into a candidate to crack the top 40, but that’s why he’s not with Mitchell Froom on this one. Daniel Lanois (who produced some early Sexsmith songs) was enlisted, but when he jumped ship for more lucrative commercial work with U2, Earle and Kennedy were in. Ultimately, Interscope gave up on Sexsmith, a gesture indicative of the shortsighted bottom-line mentality that rules much of this business. It’s a shame, since many songs in Sexsmith’s catalog surely will survive long after the current boy band and teen girl pop fads are but a distant memory. Interscope’s loss is spinART/Cooking Vinyl’s gain.
In barely a week’s worth of intensive recording time, Sexsmith handled main guitars and vocals, while he also played piano for the first time on an album. Don Kerr played drums (and also some nice cello), Kami Lyle contributed trumpet parts and Brad Jones handled bass, while Steve Earle laid down some additional guitar on a few tracks. The 14 songs on Blue Boy are a healthy addition to Ron Sexsmith’s already impressive repertoire.
The CD opens with the decidedly upbeat “This Song”, with horns complementing the contagious melody, while tongue-in-cheek lyrics examine the difficult process of song creation and maintenance in this negatively cynical song-glutted world (one can extend this metaphor as well). The proud papa sings: “I brought a song into this world / just a melody with words / it trembles here before my eyes / how can this song survive?” and “I see the game that I’m up against and no wonder I feel so afraid / for every song you’ve ever heard, how many more have died at birth?” Happily, this one has survived onto a recording for all to savor.
In “Cheap Hotel”, we get a glimpse of Sexsmith’s lyrical prowess, his ability to tell a short story in song, this one a dark tale of a woman on the run from an abusive husband. We get the standard guitar, bass, drums arrangement with a nice organ touch, as his voice relates: “She made her getaway when he stepped out / she took the kids and drove far from that house / she told them this is our home for now / God bless this cheap hotel”. We are told her nerves are shattered, and her dreams as well. It’s never anything less than convincing when he sings: “Last night she hit the ground running, but now another day’s dawning / behind the curtain there may be sun /one thing’s for certain, thy will be done”. It’s never maudlin or preachy, just a matter-of-fact tale masterfully told.
Like mentor troubadours Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, Sexsmith is a minstrel for the new millennium, giving us takes on love and life that display maturity far beyond his years. “Tell Me Again” is a light lyrical tale of romantic begging for forgiveness following distraction. “Don’t Ask Why” questions the wisdom of even giving your feelings the third degree, asking: “What good would it do me to know how it all works anyway / my heart’s got its own thing going”.
“Just My Heart Talkin'” is the prototypical mid-tempo gem, catchy and simple and short and sweet. Here the topic is the inner wrestling match between staying or going: “My eyes are telling me, leave well enough alone / these boots are telling me keep walking / other voices saying don’t let go / that’s just my heart talkin'”. “Thirsty Love” is a pleasant tune about yearnings, transposing nature with the physical realities: “And the thunder breaks the silence like a blessing from above, as the rain falls on our thirsty love”.
Along with his more traditional musical fare, Sexsmith offers up some new musical flavors. In “Never Been Done” we get a ska-type accompaniment to a lyric about parental and personal expectations, while “Not Too Big” shows us the bluesy-boy who semi-laments his barely sociable self, not too big on parties and such: “having a hard time keeping it down / all this food for thought.” “Foolproof” sounds like a lounge standard from another era, with Sexsmith crooning to piano and Chet Baker-like trumpet accompaniment about how life has left his heart in this safe condition: “They can’t fool me/ ‘Cause I’ve been around the block a few times / been around enough to know I’m coming back for more/ ‘Cause I believe that your heart is pure and ’cause I’m foolproof”.
“Farewell Thumbelina” is a cover of a Kyp Harness song about a faded star. “Miracle in Itself” is a great piano and string arrangement (reminiscent of four Liverpudlians) that examines life, traveling on the road, etc.: “How do I make myself clear, don’t speak the language here / don’t know my way around, I’m a stranger in this town / Patience, says my hard-earned mind, but my soul knows it must leave in time”. And I defy you to find a more lovely autumnal ballad than the closer “Fallen”, which poetically relates: “The leaves have lost hold of the branches as always / which leaves us with gold and wine-colored pathways / and in the same way I’ve fallen for you”. That is the magic of Sexsmith — he captures simple thoughts and transforms them into more: “Love is always on the go, it never stays in one place / day by day it changes and it grows, but you always recognize its face”.
Similarly, you recognize classic sensitive Sexsmith songwriting even in the midst of looser and slightly varied stylistic arrangements. On Blue Boy you get 14 solid songs from an old-fashioned singer/songwriter who captivates without rocking and remains a master of economy. There are no wasted licks, no rambling lyrics here — just a lean up-front presentation that drives each song’s emotional point home (six of these songs don’t even clock in at the three-minute mark). Earle and Kennedy know the hypnotic voice and compassionate lyrics are the stars of this show and, graciously, they let that happen. While Ron Sexsmith’s 1995 self-titled release still remains my favorite, Blue Boy vies strongly for second place. If you admire the emotional wallop of smart, simple, yet concise songwriting, this is the best he’s given us in some time.