Review Summary: A solid and tuneful music industry debut from the Canadian singer-songwriter.
There are various phrases that the critics like to repeat time and time again about Ron Sexsmith. 'Famous admirers' and 'slow record sales' are two of the most common. Reportedly, he's had plaudits from the likes of Elvis Costello, Elton John and Paul McCartney for his beguilingly simple and artfully melodic brand of acoustic-based pop music, yet the mainstream success that he is after never comes. And it's not like Sexsmith courts obscurity of his own free choice: 'it is frustrating. I don't want to be like Nick Drake and Tim Hardin. They never really had much success in their lives', he says. So why is Sexsmith's career, despite numerous appearances on television and even starring in a documentary, dogged by the public's refusal to accept him? Is his lack of success justified? Or is he a tortured and tragic genius, a true maverick and brilliantly gifted songwriter for whom fame never came, as so many like to suggest?
Based on his first mainstream-released album, 'Ron Sexsmith', it looks like a bit of both. Sexsmith certainly has his idiosyncrasies - his podgy, weary, slightly boyish appearance, warbling, plaintive vocals, and stark arrangements and melodies set him apart from the crowd. Here is a singer-songwriter from a generation before the term 'singer-songwriter' came to mean James Blunt or any of the more cliche-ridden solo acoustic stuff that the critics so love to hate. There are no furiously strummed acoustic guitars on this record, no soulful, angst-ridden cries for redemption or melodramatic moaning about how 'she walked away.' Here instead is a brutally simple, minimalistic, wide-eyed set of pop songs, and Sexsmith's message could not be clearer. He just sings the words, plain and sad, as they come out, unadulterated by effects and accompanied by the most simple of arrangements. I don't think I've heard an album in a long time that so simply and directly conveys its message - 'here I am, I've written some songs, take it or leave it' comes across loud and clear.
Such a back-to-basics approach has its advantages, and its undeniable that the album has some fantastic moments. The opening track, 'Secret Heart', is just gorgeous - recalling one of McCartney's more wistful numbers, added to a dash of 50's crooning and a sprinkling of Bonnie Prince Billy, it's a starkly beautiful plea to a friend to open up to the girl he loves. Sexsmith takes the role of a compassionate onlooker, but one gets the feeling that he is more involved in the relationship than the song admits. But maybe that's just the profound sadness that his voice conveys - Sexsmith constantly sounds lost and alone, murmuring a tune that drifts up from where he sits in the corner, strumming simple chords on an old guitar.
'There's A Rhythm' and its Daniel Lanois remixed counterpart, strike a similar chord, yet are held up by lyrical shortcomings. Often in the album this is the case, and is perhaps a result of Sexsmith's direct and unadulterated vocals. Combined by the extremely steady pace of the record, and the lack of invention in its arrangements, it can all drag a bit. Sexsmith has purposefully gone for as stripped down and simple as he can, and this has its merits. But I would question whether the style can be successfully sustained over 45 minutes - and if it can, Sexsmith doesn't succeed here, despite the melodic brilliance of much of the album's more inspired material.
There's no doubt about Sexsmith's ability to write an affecting and meaningful song, and couple it with a strong melody. In this sense, the plaudits from McCartney and Costello are deserved, and in his music Sexsmith recalls many past influences, from the Beatles to Dylan to Big Star. Such a fresh approach, coming at a time when Britpop and guitar bands were all the rage, is brave and inspiring. However, that's all - and much as I'd like to say otherwise, 'Ron Sexsmith' is at heart a solid pop-rock album, not a work of genius as some have previously suggested. Perhaps then, whilst there is enough good stuff here to keep (deservedly) earning Sexsmith consistently good reviews from the critics, it's not surprising that his records haven't been able to reach a wider audience through increased record sales.