Ron Sexsmith: Exit Strategy of the SoulMusic Reviews Ron Sexsmith
Sexsmith’s doubt-driven songs both interesting and complex
Isn’t it a little early for Ron Sexsmith to be devising an Exit Strategy of the Soul? After all, the Canadian singer/songwriter is six months shy of his 45th birthday. Of course, Sexsmith has always been on the anxious side—something I’ve always attributed to his days as a mail courier, hives raising on his cherubic cheeks as he raced the clock to deliver important documents in Toronto’s CBD for six long years. Couple that with the death of the two friends that inspired a track on 2006’s Time Being, and one of his heroes Harry Nilsson popping off long before his time and what have you got? An Exit Strategy of the Soul.
A better strategy might’ve been to get the brainy crooner some mainstream success. Despite accolades from Bob Dylan, who featured one of Sexsmith’s songs on his much lauded radio show, to Elvis Costello, who famously held up Sexsmith’s debut record on the cover of Mojo, to Glen Campbell, who came banging on a backstage door in Phoenix for an autograph for his son, to Chris Martin, who head-butted his way onto a Sexsmith album, recording “Gold In Them Hills” with the winsome singer for 2002’s Cobblestone Runway; Sexsmith has flown just under the radar like a persistent wraith for his entire career—something that seems to distress his fans more than him. Sexsmith routinely claims he never had any ambition to play any place bigger than Toronto’s Massey Hall. nd like that the oft-heralded New Age tenet, the Law of Attraction reminds, you do get what you ask for (a technique Sexsmith applies on “This Is How I Know,” explaining how the lovely By Divine Right guitarist Colleen Hixenbaugh landed in his life). So this is exactly what’s happened: Ron Sexsmith has aimed low.
Or is it more that the simple insights he delivers with such self-effacing grace can only be heard by those with uncommon sensitivity? He asks so little of fans, content to gently nudge them toward understanding, clarity or, at best, enlightenment, rather than forcing their hands into a rusted meat grinder to get their attention—he’d rather hit you with a flower (my apologies to Lou Reed) to get your attention.
Sexsmith’s melodies connect instantly—the two instrumentals that open and close the CD are sublime hymns; spectral, unearthly and rare—but the songs don’t reveal their full power immediately, instead needing to germinate and grow in stature and scope with repeated listening. It’s only then that they make clear their wisdom and lessons, for every Sexsmith song contains a proverb, advice or hope, like a scrap of paper tucked inside a fortune cookie.
Comparisons to Leonard Cohen notwithstanding: You get the feeling that old Leonard is a bit of an unruly princess while Sexsmith is so affable and ego-less that he’d rather swallow the fly in his soup than hail the waiter to complain. He may paint a bleak picture, but he doesn’t use the fiery colors of impending Armageddon. He sketches doubt and unease with a muted cloud-grey. On “One Last Round,” he chides, “We’re leaving a scar / On everything we found … / And it’s the children who have yet to come / Who will have to pay our tab.” What does he suggest we do? Nothing, except have another drink—the damage has already been done. His job isn’t to rally the troops, stop the war, clean the air, turn down the thermostat or save the polar bears, but rather to make us feel guilty enough to rally, stop, clean, turn down or save.
But this guilt isn’t limited to the listener. Sexsmith turns the karmic blast on himself with “Brandy Alexander,” a song he co-wrote with Leslie Feist (and re-appropriated from the winsome chanteuse after she covered it in a churlish monotone on The Reminder, betraying none of the self-loathing that fueled it). The song was inspired after Feist ran into Sexsmith at a bar, throwing back John Lennon and Harry Nilsson’s drink of choice on the infamous bender during which they ravaged Los Angeles for a fortnight, getting thrown out of the Troubadour after Lennon wore a Kotex atop his head, perhaps the least of the duo’s flashy sins.
On Exit Strategy, “Brandy Alexander” is a song of inappropriate amour and mild debauchery, with Sexsmith lamenting a little insincerely, “Why do I thirst for all the worst again? / Is it my addiction to this curse within? / Silently I must confess this sin / Tastes better after juice and gin / She’s my Brandy Alexander.” It’s the best song on the disc, if only because it shows that this sometimes-dour musician actually has a sense of humor and ribald side. It’s only a little tainted by the insistence of producer Martin Terefe—who also produced 2005’s Retriever and 2002’s Cobblestone Runway—on adding a heaving horn section to the tune (and four other tracks), weighing down what should’ve been a frothy cocktail.
Besides this minor misstep, though, the song is an elegant fall from grace, a counterpoint to the rest of the album, on which Sexsmith seems to be searching for—if not grace—at least something bigger than himself. No longer comforted by the redemptive power of love (“Traveling Alone”) as he was on early discs, uncertainty impels him now. He’s defined not by what he loves, but by his doubts, and as a result, this album is far more interesting and complex than anything he’s done in years.