Friday, September 12, 2008

Exit Strategy of the Soul, by Ron Sexsmith

I haven't written any music reviews for this website, because I'm not sure how you manage to convince someone of musical value through words. I used to devour music reviews in college until I realized that there was virtually no connection between how intelligent the reviewers seemed and whether their judgments ended up lining up with mine. So I stopped reading them. Now I look at the occasional interview with a musician I already like, or wait for recommendations from friends.

So I want to apologize for subjecting you to a music review. Because I'm going to attempt to convince you that Ron Sexsmith is a great artist, knowing in advance that there's no way I can do this with words. I only bother because it seems like very few people know about him. Sexsmith has released ten albums over the last decade and a half and keeps getting bounced from one label to another. Several of his old albums are no longer available, although you can usually find them used.

On first listen, his music does not seem like a particularly specialized taste, one that needs to be defended against philistines. It sounds, quite frequently, like soft rock, suitable for waiting rooms and supermarkets. His melodies are rarely immediately catchy, and he also avoids jarring dissonances, both in his singing and his instrumentation. His tempos are generally loping, with drumming that stays very much in the background. Very rarely will you find yourself tapping a toe.

In short, Sexsmith never insists that you pay attention to him. His music only opens up on repeated listens, where the listener is actually focusing – on the lyrics, the melody, the structure of a song. Unfortunately, the segment of the population that tends to be serious about popular music is likely to be put off both by the "unchallenging" surface pleasantness of Sexsmith's music and the content of his lyrics, which are often both coherent and hopeful.

Sexsmith tells stories, he relates morals, and even occasionally declares his faith. He has a song called "God Loves Everyone," and the lyrics, unashamedly and without irony, say just that. And although I don't believe this and I'm pretty sure it's not true, I believe the song. I'm willing to follow it past what I can reasonably defend. The point of music – or at least one of them – is to take us beyond the realm of the intellectually defensible, a realm that most people find exhausting now and then. So we sent up prayers and trouble deaf heaven with our cries – and the more beautiful we can make these cries, the higher up they get before they disappear. Which in my experience they eventually do.

I'm only willing to follow them up, of course, when I'm convinced that a musician isn't insincere or simply muddleheaded. But Sexsmith's lyrics are exceptionally smart and always leavened by doubt. His version of God in the afore-mentioned song, in any case, is a strange and abstract entity, clearly worked out in his mind independent of any organized religion. "The heart runs on faith / the mind on proof," he sings in "Poor Helpless Dreams," and Sexsmith never completely loses himself in one or the other. His love songs always acknowledge the possibility of disaster, even with the best of wills; and his songs of faith and affirmation make it clear that these are simply prayers, and do not reflect the world as it generally stands.

The only source of happiness that Sexsmith reliably returns to is the lost paradise of childhood. And if he occasionally gets sentimental, which he does, I am also moved by his music in a way that I'm not by even the best modern songwriters. Songs like "Seem to Recall" reach down into a place that few pieces of music have ever accessed for me.

An example: the song "Traveling Alone" starts with an image of a man getting on a train, and uses the words of the Christian marriage ceremony to signify our union not with another person, but with private obsessions: "From the dreams at hand there's no divorce / In sickness and in health / It's a fever that must run its course / Before you are well." And the song ends with a simple but beautiful metaphor for fundamental human isolation.
It's one on one, you and your soul
And nobody else
Just look around this train is full
Of folks who keep to themselves
These faces in windows
Heading out for places unknown
Though lives intermingle
Our thoughts are left to roam
All traveling alone
Is this great poetry? Maybe not, but it is a great set of song lyrics, and their impact on me partly depends on the melody that I hear as I write them out. I sat down once with my guitar to figure out how to play "One Less Shadow" - another great Ron song - and after a fair amount of time I got it mostly right and realized how strange and inspired Sexsmith's progressions are. By way of contrast, when I sit down at the keyboard to goof around, it is easy for me to plonk my way into discovering something that sounds okay, like it "could be a song." The hands finds their way to ordinary chords and try out variations on old tunes.

I'm fairly certain that most songs, and even some great ones, are written this way - composed at the piano or the guitar basically using trial and error. But when I play an inspired melody like "Here, There, and Everywhere," the chords don't run in the usual grooves; they're twisted and idiosyncratic, even while the tune seems as inevitable as C to F. The artist has clearly worked out the song and cast it into shape in his imagination. I'm sure there's plenty of tweaking left to do, but the heart of the song is coming from inspiration and not from someone's fingers chancing on a tune. I always feel this deeper inspiration with Sexsmith's best songs; they are simply beyond accident, beyond the range of musical dabblers like me.

There are a few caveats. Sexsmith doesn't seem particularly devoted to the production part of his music; once he gets the song right, he leaves the ornamentation and basic sound to other people who don't always serve him well. So there are some production disasters on his albums: the backing singers on "These Days," the bizarre tuba breakdown on "At Different Times," and any number of schmaltzy arrangements (no one seems to be able to entirely wreck the songs, though, and Sexsmith's versions are always the best). Also, while every one of his albums is worth owning, I don't think a single one is flawless; at least a handful of songs usually don't connect with me.

The current one, though, Exit Strategy of the Soul, is very good, and well-produced. Like his other albums, on first listen I regretted buying it; three or four listens later I realized my mistake. The album contributes another five or six great songs to the dozens Sexsmith has written over the last decade and a half, a period of productivity that is astonishing considering how quickly most great musical talents fizzle out.

I once had a stack of his CDs on my office desk, and a colleague assumed – because of Sexsmith's last name and the pictures of the slightly chubby man on all the covers – that this was music of the most extraordinary depravity. (I can't imagine what would have happened if I'd had some Bruce Cockburn albums mixed in.) But one of the amazing things about Sexsmith is that he is writing healthy, wise, inventive songs in times that don't seem to deserve them. Musical talent, as far as I can tell, is handed out at random, and most of the time it's given to people with almost nothing to say. So we should pay attention when it happens to be granted to someone with intelligence and insight, because it is a rare gift.

Update: I managed to see Sexsmith in Cambridge with about twenty other people. In his words, it was a "small but mighty audience." Almost everything promised a bad night. Sexsmith's drummer had bailed on them earlier in the tour, so it was just him and a bassist. Some of the crowd had come for one of the earlier, local acts, so they were milling around by the bar without really listening. And there was another band playing in the basement whose bass would vibrate through the floor in the middle of Sexsmith's songs, which was extremely annoying.

I was starting to feel bad until Ron got a few songs into his set, and then, during "All in Good Time," everyone in front of the stage started singing along. The dozen or so of us knew all the lyrics, and not just to that song. Looking around, it was obvious that there was profound devotion in this little group, which I hope was worth something to him. He seems to be pretty satisfied with what he's doing, in any case.

As for the show, Sexsmith was really good. The songs sounded a lot like they do on the records, although with some creative and unobtrusively brilliant guitar work to fill in for the missing instruments. I really recommend picking up one of his albums (his latest is very good) -- I can't think of another artist working today that engages me intensely in so many different ways.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Swami and Friends, by R.K. Narayan

I have so far read five of R.K. Narayan's fourteen novels. Every one contained beautiful moments, but in almost every book, at some point or another, I had an unpleasant sense of arbitrariness. Why is this happening, I thought, instead of something else? Plot developments seemed to fall from the sky, and the books meandered their way to conclusions that felt almost random. It was like the characters were being moved around by some inscrutable fate, and not by either the intelligence of the author or the dictates of their own characters. Many of Narayan's books strike me as reflecting a deep belief that no one is really in control of their lives. Of the books I have read, only The Painter of Signs has a certain sense of inevitability – the heroine has a very narrowly defined personality, and she follows it to the end – but it is also one of the dullest of Narayan's novels.

The one book of Narayan's that I am sure is a masterpiece is Swami and Friends. It is definitely the best book about childhood I have ever read. The feeling of arbitrariness that bothers me in Narayan's other novels now seems like it simply reflects the texture of pre-adolescence, where life hasn't developed a coherent narrative yet, only a series of mini-narratives: what happened on a certain weekend, a certain day in school. The world of childhood also frees Narayan from writing about sexual desire, a subject that he cautiously approaches in some of his other books with consistently unconvincing results.

Swami and Friends is Narayan's first book, the one that he struggled so much to get published in India until it made its way, through friends in England, to Graham Greene, who immediately recognized its value. The novel bears the marks of an early effort; the beginning is a little shaky (it gets better and better as it goes on) and the inspiration comes in fits and starts. There are little stories in chapters of five of six pages, and although elements sometimes carry over from one chapter to another, there is no real plot. A ten-year-old boy named Swaminathan (Swami for short) is going to school in the 1930s during the early days of the Indian independence movement, in a sleepy medium-sized city somewhere in Tamil Nadu. There is nothing extraordinary about him; he is not particularly bright or stupid, dull or spirited. He gets in trouble occasionally. He makes friends but is basically a follower of other stronger and more assertive children.

Narayan's conviction of randomness, of life simply happening to people, seems absolutely right for the world of children. One day, for whatever reason, father is angry, so Swami avoids him (the anger is never explained). A boy who was once a close friend moves away. The boy sends a card telling everyone in the class not to forget him and to write, but forgets to put down his address on the letter. In a few pages he is entirely forgotten. The book is so funny that the melancholy only seems to catch up with it at the very end, and it is easy to overlook the amount of insight and intelligence that go into even the simplest paragraphs. Here is an example:
Father was standing in the small courtyard, wearing a dhoti and a banian, the dress which, for its very homeliness, Swaminathan detested to see him in; it indicated that he did not intend going out in the near future.
"Where are you going?"
"Where were you yesterday at this time?"
"You are lying. You were not here yesterday. And you are not going out right now."
"That is right," Mother added, just appearing from somewhere, "there is no limit to his loafing in the sun. He will die of sunstroke if he keeps on like this."
I think the heart of Narayan's gift is in that little phrase "just appearing from somewhere." I didn't even notice it until I read the book the second time, but it so perfectly describes the feeling of being yelled at by your parents. One parent starts, and then the other person just seems to show up - from where? who knew they were even involved? - and begins to heap on more complaints that are not quite the same as the first set of complaints, making it difficult to find any way to respond. There are beautiful moments like this scattered throughout the book. And although the comedy can sometimes be excessively genial for my taste, Narayan is too honest a writer to ignore the cruelty of children to each other. Near the end of the novel, there is a moment of callousness that is all the more chilling for being small and unremarkable. And the book concludes with one of my favorite scenes in all of literature.

Greene said something about Narayan that I have always found pretty silly - "Without him," Greene wrote, "I could never have known what it is like to be Indian." Ignoring the question of whether being Indian is a single thing that can be figured out - let alone through reading! - Narayan's books strike me as a very odd sort of guide to India. I have spent a great deal of time in the part of India that (approximately) Narayan wrote about, and it is not a place that I recognize in his pages. Other than the little details of food and clothing, one would have a completely different vision of what life is like for most people in India from these novels. The sheer crowdedness is largely gone, and the hunger and desperate poverty seem to have completely disappeared. Now, the last thing I am interested in is pages of useless hand-wringing, but it seems odd that something that is so much a part of the texture of daily life - the beggars, the people living everywhere on almost nothing - merits almost no mention in Narayan's novels.

The only book where this doesn't seem odd is Swami and Friends. Because children are the one group that absolutely accepts life as it is, no matter how bad it might be for other people or for themselves. I was in New Delhi until I was eight; I'm sure there were people all around the city living in plastic tents or sleeping on the street, and I don't remember them being a source of any reflection for me. They were just another part of the world, like the air and the heat. My rather hazy memories mainly concern good and bad days at school, mean teachers, and games of cricket, which are exactly what fill up the pages of Swami and Friends. It is a shame that the book is no longer independently in print in the U.S., but you can find it in this collection. It is a great little book, one that I don't think I will ever get tired of re-reading.