When a journalist asked Rufus Wainwright what sound he was aspiring toward on 2007’s Release the Stars, he replied, “I’m going for the sound of cash registers.” Tired of winning the respect of fellow practitioners, bored of his reputation as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter’ and frustrated at his lack of crossover appeal, he craved a hit song and radio play. The same story goes with Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Feted by everyone from Bob Dylan to Elvis Costello, Feist to Nick Hornby and even Chris Martin to Michael Bublé, Sexsmith, like Wainwright, has been at the mercy of his craft. So entrenched in the styles and techniques of past masters, Sexsmith’s records belong neither to the mainstream nor the alternative scene that has flourished in his native Canada in recent years. He is not name-checked by the same people who listen to Bill Callahan or Ryan Adams, nor has he been warmly received by fans of Elton John or indeed Michael Bublé, with whom Sexsmith recorded a cover of ‘Whatever it Takes’ from Sexsmith’s 2004 album Retriever.
On Long Player Late Bloomer, his 11th studio album, Sexsmith is going for broke. Enlisting fellow Canadian Bob Rock (Metallica, Bon Jovi), the end product is an accessible, radio-friendly, Technicolor pop record full of songs that would have troubled the charts in the 1970’s. Opener ‘Get in Line’ is full of snappy, confessional verses about being the bridesmaid and never the bride: ‘Heavey clouds all around/ And the Sun refuses to shine…better get in line’. Its country leanings are homely, the hooks infectious. ‘Believe it When I See It,’ like single ‘Love Shines,’ is eerily reminiscent of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles work. His progressive and fluid melodies, coupled with Bob Rock’s generous mix, full of slide guitar, strings and piano, scream “radio play, please!!!” very, very loudly.
Sexsmith’s preoccupations with small town life – a consistent theme throughout his previous ten records – are not drowned out by Rock’s lush arrangements. ‘Michael and His Dad,’ one of the best songs Sexsmith has ever written, is a simple story about a widower and his son. Set against a jaunty pop tune, the sudden and unexpected turn of intensity in the middle eight is beautifully timed. Sexsmith sings ‘Mother’s gone to the land of safe keeping/ Michael walking from the grave/ says “Dad, she’s only sleeping”’ with an urgency and syllabic precision rarely heard in contemporary pop music.
At times, however, the record is too concerned with its accessibility. Sexsmith eschews the character of previous releases and, throughout, one hopes for an even balance between Sexsmith’s gift for crafting the ideal pop song and the more intimate, intense songs of previous releases, where he is accompanied solely by a guitar or piano. There are though enough rich and well-crafted pop songs here that will, in an ideal world, win Sexsmith, a host of new admirers.