Sunday, July 27, 2008

"Travelling Alone" / Ron Sexsmith

Suddenly I'm inundated with new releases. There's Paul Weller's 22 Dreams (baffling but brilliant, on first listen), The Hard Way by the amazing British retro soul singer James Hunter, Last Days at the Lodge by Amos Lee (produced by Don Was, who brings out Lee's soul side to the max), the Old 97s Blame It On Gravity, John Hiatt's cantankerously marvelous Same Old Man, and a new outing by those adorable Fratellis (my son's still hogging that CD, but I hope to get my hands on it soon. I knew there was a reason I should never have cultivated his great taste in music).

But we are here tonight, oh my brothers and sisters, to sing the praises of Canada's greatest gift to songwriting, Mr. Ron Sexsmith. Yes, I say that with all due respect for Fred Eaglesmith and Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot and Jesse Winchester and even Neil Young. But come on, folks, Ron Sexsmith. If you don't know this guy's work, get your butt right now over to Amazon or Rhapsody or iTunes or wherever you shop for music these days. He's got a new album out called Exit Strategy of the Soul, and it's a gorgeous thing indeed.

It's not just because Ron is a Ray Davies fan (the twelve words of conversation I've ever had with the man were almost all about our mutual worship of the King Kink). And it's not just because two of my personal musical gods, Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe, have covered Sexsmith's songs. Those may be the avenues which led me to discover his music, but by now I've acquired most of his albums (I do tend to get on a roll sometimes) and I can say unequivocally that this guy touches my soul the way few other artists do. He just seems like a beautiful human being, and that's refracted through all of his tender, thoughtful, incredibly melodic music.

Exit Strategy of the Soul is, like the title suggests, more about spirituality than about getting a girl to sleep with him -- which makes it a refreshing change of pace. (Ron's been waltzing around religious issues for years, though always delicately.) "Traveling Alone" could be a brooding, gloomy meditation on human isolation, but he's done something brilliant instead -- matched it with a gently loping rhythm and an upbeat melody full of bright vocal trills that tempers the existential message with a sort of Buddhist acceptance.

"With my free hand I'll flag it down / This oncoming day/ I hitch a ride far from this town / Be on my way," he begins, setting us up for the metaphor of life as a journey that runs through the song. (Songwriting Craftsmanship 101: Pick a line of imagery and stick with it.) But rather than focus on the machismo loner, almost at once he's searching the faces of his fellow travelers, with a gentle melancholy that really gets to me. ("In this world of beginners / Singled out, their faces unknown / These saints and these sinners /Agendas of their own / All traveling alone." Later, he depicts them on a train -- "This train is full of folks who keep to themselves /These faces in windows, heading out for places unknown" -- such a poignant snapshot, it reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel's "America".

Human fellowship? Don't count on it, Sexsmith tells us gently -- "We're in this together / With hangups of our own" (I love how he lets that paradox hover, unresolved). And later in the song, "It's one on one -- /You and your soul, and nobody else." But there's no scolding here, just Ron's warm, sympathetic vibrato, soothing female back-up vocals, and a comforting repeated riff doubled on guitar and electric piano.

It's an intriguing dialectic, between the tough-love message and the sweet folky arrangement. He's not going to hand us off some cheap tripe about human fellowship: "Though lives intermingle / Our thoughts are left to roam / All traveling alone."

It's easy to listen to Ron Sexsmith's choirboy voice and lush melodies and think he's a saccharine optimist, but nothing could be farther from the truth. His matter-of-fact approach to this human loneliness is pretty bleak, when you really think about it. But of course you do have to think about it (heavens!). Maybe they should put a warning label on this album: CAUTION -- MAY CAUSE YOU TO CHANGE YOUR VALUE SYSTEM. There used to be a time, you know, when music was supposed to do that.

Traveling Alone sample


Mark said...

I agree, Ron Sexsmith is a great songwriter. I had never heard of him before I saw him with Nick Lowe last fall, but he's really good. I have to admit I still haven't bought any of his CD's yet...but I heard a song from Exit Strategy on the radio last week, and I think I need to get it.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Exit Strategy is wonderful. Though if I were going to start anywhere, I'd start with Blue Boy -- just about every song on there is winner, perfectly crafted little short stories.