When an artist needs motivation to create something new, nothing does it quicker, more suddenly, than personal hardship. The very thing happened to Toronto singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith this past year. Following the 2001 release of his highly acclaimed album Blue Boy, his 15-year marriage fell apart, and during those troubled times, inspiration hit Sexsmith big time, and a mere year after Blue Boy's release, a shockingly short period of time, considering his first five albums were released in a 10-year period, he has returned with yet another album containing more of the loveliest songs you'll hear. And what do you know, but Ron's miserable year has just happened to spawn his best album yet, called Cobblestone Runway.
Gone is the meat-and-potatoes production of Steve Earle's and Roy Kennedy's "twangtrust"; at the producer's helm this time around is Swedish whiz Martin Terefe. Sexsmith openly admits he knows little about the technicalities and finer points of crafting a good record, and he took a bit of a gamble letting Terefe (who has produced Leona Naess in the past) do what he wanted with the tracks, but the end result couldn't be better. The sound of Cobblestone Runway is warm, lush, intimate, comfy. But instead of making it just an intimate, acoustic guitar and piano album, Terefe snazzies things up considerably, adding electronic beats, back-up singers, gospel choirs, string sections, disco bass (!), and various techno bloops and bleeps scattered throughout. Judging from that description, it sounds like the type of desperate-to-impress production overkill that ruins many albums these days, but Terefe does a masterful job keeping the studio enhancements very minimal.
Sexsmith is widely regarded as a songwriting genius, and Cobblestone Runway shows us how easily he comes up with such enchanting melodies mixed with thoughtful, but never maudlin, lyrics. The album's opening track, "Former Glory", sets the tone perfectly: Sexsmith may be bummed, but he sounds aware that all hope is not lost. The simple combination of acoustic guitar, shuffling drum brushes, and light touches of strings and synths add a gentle, happy touch to Sexsmith's laid-back singing ("Though love's become a dying ember / It will burn brighter than you ever dreamed"). One track in, and he's reached McCarteyesque, or Brian Wilson-like heights. The ballad "Least That I Can Do" offers up more of the bitter being overcome by the sweet sentiment ("With all the love you've given me . . . To call your heart infinity / Is the least that I can do"), which gracefully crescendos into a moving chorus, aided by the aforementioned gospel choir. "God Loves Everyone", inspired by the brutal murder of gay Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, is a simple, acoustic song that is a wrenching plea for tolerance that sounds especially poignant these days. Other quiet, thoughtful acoustic songs, in the form of "For a Moment", "The Less I Know", "Up the Road", and "Best Friends" are such pretty songs that ought to force a lazy veteran songwriter like Paul McCartney to apply himself more, before Sexsmith leaves him in his dust. And hey, I haven't even gotten to the really good stuff yet.
The most memorable songs on Cobblestone Runway are the ones that pack the most surprises. The album's first single, "These Days", utilizes a gently funky bassline, and back-up singers scatting during the chorus, a la Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side", as Sexsmith adding wry, grown-up commentary: "Love is not some popular song / Filled with empty sentiment . . . That's what passes for love these days." "Disappearing Act", one of the album's more upbeat songs, has a nice, Travis-meets-electronic feel, while "Heart's Desire" has more of a languid, techno vibe to it, before ending on a cool, free-form group jam. The biggest surprise comes on "Dragonfly on Bay Street", a song loaded with, dare I say, funk. Over a disco beat, some darn-groovy bass playing, and some subtle Kylie-styled beats, Sexsmith sings a charming tale of his days as a messenger in Toronto's financial district, coming across an insect that really didn't belong there: "What was it telling me / Is it better to be free? / Or maybe nothing at all."
The gorgeous piano and cello ballad "Gold in Them Hills" is the album's centerpiece song, so to speak, seeing that it appears twice on the CD, and it's also the best. It's always darkest before the dawn, Sexsmith tells us: "If we'd only open our eyes / We'd see the blessings in disguise / That all the rain clouds are fountains / Though our troubles seem like mountains." It's the remix of the song that closes the album, though, that packs the most punch. In what has to be the most timely cameo appearance a struggling artist could ask for, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin duets with Sexsmith, their surprisingly identical-sounding voices meshing perfectly, while Martin Terefe adds a quiet techno beat, a layer of synth, and even more strings to the sumptuous tune.
Ron Sexsmith is one of those guys who gets name-dropped by an incredible number of more famous musicians all the time, be it Paul McCartney, Elton John, Elvis Costello, Lucinda Williams, or Steve Earle, yet commercial success has sadly evaded him all these years (incredibly, even in Canada, where radio stations are forced by law to play nearly 50 percent Canadian material). With Cobblestone Runway, he proves once again he's one of the best songwriters out there, and easily the best Canadian songwriter working today. His cult following seems to be slowly, but steadily growing, and this accomplished, pleasantly surprising, gem of an album deserves some good word-of-mouth. You can't help but hope that Ron Sexsmith has a really, really good year, commercially speaking, for once.