“There are no great songs, just great melodies.”
I heard this quote a few months back and, while Google’s algorithm refuses to help me with attribution, I can’t shrug off its inherent logic. There is a reason why “Hey Jude” sounds spectacular, whether performed by unwitting shower soloist, 4th-grade recorder ensemble or San Francisco philharmonic. Recording gimmicks may provide a song with eyeliner; instrumental virtuosity, a pleasing attire. But melody remains the convulsive life-giving heart. You lose that, a tune withers facedown. Ron Sexsmith understands this point better than most every singer/songwriter working today.
Retriever marks Sexsmith’s fourth collaboration with Martin Terefe, the London-based Swedish producer who originally invited him into the studio to perform a duet (“Always”) with Shea Seger on her 2001 debut, May Street Project. When it came time for Sexsmith to return to the studio and record his next LP, he and Terefe went back to work, creating what would eventually become 2002’s unsurprisingly stellar (and aptly titled) Cobblestone Runway, a departure record that eschewed the more organic approach of his earlier efforts. In a very real sense, Terefe officiated the marriage of Sexsmith’s soulfully quavering vocal delivery and retro-pop sensibilities to an arresting spectrum of predominantly unexplored nuances—theatrical strings, crunchy beats, whooshing synthetic textures and tasteful electronic punctuation. A calculated risk which succeeded famously. And has once more.
The sonic trajectory assumed on Runway holds steady. Retriever’s palette feels heartened and refined, its artistic vision further distilled. On the ebullient, downright celestial-sounding “Not About To Lose,” Terefe dresses up the affair in big fat string passages, glittering piano (compliments of Ed Harcourt) and a bass line so decadent it practically begs to be dunked in a glass of cold milk. Production has always been about accommodating the needs of a given song. And the very next track, “Tomorrow In Her Eyes,” a subdued romantic declaration, eases into motion as Sexsmith sings gently along with piano. It’s unembellished at the outset, with nothing interrupting save the occasional (and inadvertent) creak of artist shifting on piano stool. From a writing standpoint Sexsmith is predictably ruthless, leaving your heart in bleeding shambles with his trademark bittersweet optimism. Listening to songs like “Dandelion Wine” is to be forever licking strawberry jam from a sharpened knife edge: “Now when I sing to you / It’s with a heavy heart / I took a love that was true / And tore it all apart / How can I let go of all those times / With this memory of her hand in mine.” Presumably referring to the dissolution of his 15-year marriage, the regret communicated is palpable, unsettling. Of course, while you’re busy struggling to fake composure, he hits you with a joyful ode to happiness entitled, well, “Happiness.”
Sexsmith is one of the finest songwriters we have. And Retriever is golden.