Of all the singer-songwriters that release work year in and year out, one would be hard-pressed to find one as consistently engaging, accessible, and just plain gifted as Canada's Ron Sexsmith. Coming hot off the heels of 2002's uniformly excellent Cobblestone Runway, Sexsmith releases an LP of brand new material with his latest, Retriever. If you've been a fan of Sexsmith's in the past, there is absolutely no reason to hesitate in picking up his latest work. It contains all the things that you, no doubt, love about Sexsmith already: A sort of wistful but reassuring melancholy, beautifully simple arrangements, strong lyricism, and Sexsmith's trademark Kermit-like vocals.
Recorded in London last August, Retriever sees Sexsmith teaming up with fellow singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt, longtime producer Martin Terefe, and even Neil Primrose of Travis on drums. The whole affair has a more up-tempo feel to it than 2002's relatively subdued Cobblestone Runway, but Sexsmith's always-strong ballads also make appearances ("For the Driver" being the standout).
"Hard Bargain" opens the album with an atmosphere akin to Cobblestone's "These Days". Sexsmith describes the song as being a "part love song, part letter to God". Indeed with lines like "How's a guy supposed to feel / With someone like you around", it could be construed in a number of ways, but Sexsmith later confesses hopefully, "you just can't seem to let me down". It's this relentlessly hopeful tone that so often makes Sexsmith's work so reassuring, and strangely unique. This is a songwriter, after all, whose break-up album, the previously mentioned Cobblestone Runway, contained lines like, "Though love's become a dying ember / It will burn brighter than you've ever dreamed". Not exactly the bitter resentment unleashed on say, Blood on the Tracks.
"Happiness", tackles the eureka-like realization that the eternal search for happiness may be nothing more than a search for something which one already possesses. It's a comforting thought, and one that Sexsmith executes so well. A writer of lesser talents could so easily fall into cliché with themes such as these, and it is a testament to Sexsmith's talents that he so rarely does.
"How on Earth" is Retriever's most unabashedly romantic cut, recalling Lennon's most Yoko-happy solo work of his "house-husband" period. As Ed Harcourt bangs out perhaps his most bouncy piano, Sexsmith equates the love he feels for his unnamed other with the almost impossible love of Hollywood romance, and rejoices in it.
Retriever only stumbles once, and it's such a small misstep that I'm loathe to even mention it, but Sexsmith's Bill Withers-inspired "Whatever It Takes" feels just a tad syrupy with its overly AOR string-section, and '70s AM radio chorus. Again, though it's a trifle, and at just over three minutes in length, it's not as if it overstays its welcome.
Albums like Retriever are so absolutely rare these days that they deserve to be enjoyed by so many more people than they no doubt will be. That Ron Sexsmith manages to create music of such lyrical dexterity, near Beatle-esque melodies, and with such consistent quality is truly exceptional. Normally songwriters of his talent tend to get so wrapped up in their own musicianship that melodies and song-structures get overly complex and in the attempt to "push the boundaries" with each subsequent release, their respective heads travel quite a bit too far up their own respective backsides. Happily, Sexsmith manages to avoid all the traps, and is happy to create music of magnificent beauty and reassuring grace. It's no wonder that he has so many famous fans (Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello are unabashed admirers), such admiration is exceedingly well deserved.