Gordon Lightfoot’s 23rd album almost didn’t get made. Back in 2002, Lightfoot had recorded demos for his next project, only to land in the hospital after a burst abdominal artery felled him during a concert in his Ontario hometown. When he awoke from the coma, physical limitations prevented him from getting back in the studio or even singing. So he called on his bassist, Rick Haynes, to see if he and engineer Bob Doidge could make something of those demos.
Along with other musicians who’d worked with Lightfoot, the two added instrumentation to the demo tapes, which the singer would approve or suggest changes to from his hospital bed. The result, Harmony, shows the limitations of its sources—Lightfoot’s baritone is nowhere near as strong as the one we’re accustomed to hearing—but the songs themselves exhibit the melancholic melodic sense that’s been the singer’s hallmark since early-’70s hits like “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and “If You Could Read My Mind.”
In fact, the title track and opener is as timeless a track as Lightfoot’s ever written. With a simple, falling melody and synthesized accordion accompaniment, he delivers a beautiful campfire song about longing for connection and love, a theme he returns to on the bittersweet “End of All Time” and “Clouds of Loneliness.” In each song, choruses flow organically from the melodic themes introduced in the verses—simple but unforgettable.
Lightfoot’s always fleshed out his albums with stories and evocative, image-filled songs about the Canadian wilderness. Here, we get the haunting “Flying Blind,” a tale of a pilot making his way through the snow and ice, all the while thinking about the friend who advised him not to fly. Then there’s the percussive “Couchiching,” an ode to Orilla, Lightfoot’s birthplace, in which he reaches deep into an imagined, mythic past to envision his final resting place. “The No Hotel” takes on a different landscape, the Amazon, to spin a yarn about “burnt-out shells” and “bed sheets telling lies.” But the album’s centerpiece is “Shellfish,” a dark, lovely catalog of both regret and resolve: “You will not be deserted / By old friends you left alone / You got faith / To meet the cost / And you know you’d best not wait.” The metaphor of the title serves as a warning against couching one’s self in armor to stay safe. “It’s so easy to be shellfish in the sea.”
Here’s hoping Lightfoot’s got many more albums like Harmony left in him.