North of Northwest: Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
Ron Sexsmith is something of a Canadian institution. He’s released a dozen albums, collaborated with Leonard Cohen, been covered by k.d. lang, and cowritten with Feist. He’s won a Songwriter of the Year Juno (an achievement also earned by Arcade Fire, Sarah McLachlan, Leonard Cohen) and was the subject of a 2010 documentary, Love Shines. And now he’s been shortlisted for the Polaris Prize with his 2011 album Long Player Late Bloomer. It’s a great honor for Sexsmith. It’s really too bad the album isn’t very good.
There’s a sense of inevitability about the whole thing, and I get it: when you’ve loved someone for as many years as many Polaris judges have probably loved Sexsmith, you want to honor them and help them get the recognition you feel they deserve. But Long Player is, for the most part, an overproduced nightmare of soft rock stylings and hackneyed lyrics.
“Miracles” is an egregious offender. “There are miracles before our very eyes / In reality’s disguise / Our shadow below us and the stars up above / It’s a miracle my love.” These phone-it-in lyrics are crooned over a background track that sounds, literally, like elevator music. “No Help At All” suffers from a similar backing sound. The lyrics to “Heavenly” – “Though our pockets are empty / We won’t let it get us down / There is so much to be thankful for” – are saved from eye-roll territory only by a touch of sincerity in Sexsmith’s voice, but the song still lacks enough texture or timbre to seem truly heartfelt. Passion has depth and intensity. “Heavenly” does not.
There are moments of quality on Long Player. “Believe It When I See It” draws strength from more complex vocals, fuller backing, and the clear influence of Elvis Costello (an avowed Sexsmith fan). The country-influenced “Eye Candy” has a nice bit of swagger and a finger-snapping beat. Between them, though, lies a wasteland of textureless soft rock that does listeners no favors and Sexsmith no credit. The Polaris is not meant to be a lifetime achievement award. Skip over Long Player Late Bloomer, and if Sexsmith really wants the award, make him work a little harder for it.