Sunday, March 03, 2013

Forever Endeavour, by Ron Sexsmith

I've written a few times about my love for Ron Sexsmith's music. I own all of his albums, and have come to expect, every few years, another infusion of the spirit that has filled his work since his first eponymous album. Along with folk songs, and some classics by Dylan, Sam Cooke, and the old soul and country legends, I sing Ron's songs every few weeks just to feel them moving through me.

I picked up Sexsmith's most recent album, Forever Endeavour, on the day it was released. I listened to it for several weeks, and found, after years of what could be described as satisfied greed, that for the first time something felt off. The melodies were memorable, the production was intricate and tasteful, but the spirit that I had come to expect was missing from most of the album.

I don't usually bother writing about complaints. I should make it clear that I owe this man and his art an enormous debt of gratitude, and he owes me nothing at all. Still, I thought my sense of what was missing might be useful, because Forever Endeavour strikes me as succumbing to one of the few temptations that threaten great artists.

People often talk about musicians becoming commercially-compromised. I actually think that true artists have a difficult time selling out—not because they aren't tempted to do so, but because I suspect that they're not really sure how to manage it. Pandering is a special skill that the gods in their wisdom tend to grant to people who would never be able to produce something good anyway.

Although commercial compromise has affected some of the production on Sexsmith's albums, it has never threatened his songs—they come from a place that simply won't supply a mass product. Instead, I think that much of this album, like just a few of Sexsmith's older songs, is immortality-compromised.

To be immortality-compromised is to set out in advance to create a work of art that is going to continue to connect with people. It is the courting of posterity in the process of composition. We can start with the title: Forever Endeavour. Sexsmith explained in an interview that it refers to the aspiration to write something that would last. The idea has appeared before in his work. In “Chasing Forever,” off Destination Unknown, he wrote “Once it dawned on me what a song can grant you, I learned to write / In every songbook on every piano, eternal life.”

This may seem harmless enough—isn't a just a way of saying that, as an artist, you're going to do your absolute best? Or the fancy that we allow to play over a finished work to enhance the feeling of pride, or later, during bad days, to drive away despair when no one much cares for what we've made?

Sometimes, though, it is not harmless. You can see the fingerprints of that mysterious audience, posterity, on a song like “If Only Avenue.”

With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It's strange, as people we're prone to dwell
On things that we can't undo
And we're liable to wander down
If Only Avenue

This is not bad, certainly. The melody is lovely; the lyrics are coherent and well-crafted. But this song, like so many others on the album, is about Everyone living in Anytown. It is a transmission directed towards the future, where the people all have blurred faces and their needs are unclear.

Compare this song of generalized regret to the very specific regrets found in “Dandelion Wine,” which relates to the painful collapse of Sexsmith's first marriage. A young couple gathers dandelion flowers to make wine (I have always wondered how to do this) and creates a concoction that ends up being less than tasty—“we drank it anyway,” he sings, “for love had made it fine.” I have never had any of the experiences in this song, but whenever I sing or play it, it reaches to a place of regret—because genuine instead of abstract—that “If Only Avenue” can't approach.

It's true that some of Sexsmith's best songs are written out of a sense of desperation that it would be unfair to expect anyone to feel on a regular basis. Most of his songs, though, are not confessional and still do not drift away into this universal territory. These is always something concrete, some individual strangeness, including some lines that I don't think we're even meant to understand, like the ones about “dumming down and talk shows” on “Seem to Recall” (it's spelled that way in the lyric sheet).

Sexsmith has even written message songs before, sometimes about the very same subjects, but on this album the tendency to generalize has taken over. Here, for example, is “Blind Eye.”

Our sleepy town of denial
Where all of the tears people cry
Fall on deaf ears
For we turn a blind eye 

This is the same little town that contains If Only Avenue: a landscape without a single actual suffering person. Compare these lines to “Ghost of a Chance,” off a truly great Sexsmith album, Exit Strategy of the Soul. which begins with a magical line: “With the graceful and grotesque the morning rings / see the garbage truck roll by, hear the birds begin to sing.” The narrator looks at the world around him and sees the same suffering that is the subject of “Blind Eye,” but produces these lyrics:

I'm on the trail of a storm
And everywhere I look
I see the ones that life has torn
Like pages from a book 

I've always remembered this image of people floating around like torn pages from a single volume. How many poets could have captured a sense of what we owe to each other as a community in such a beautiful line, let alone set it to such a lovely and flowing melody?

In Forever Endeavour, though, one feels that Sexsmith hasn't stepped outside his door to look at a real place, and is instead netting airy universal truths in a kind of vacuum. It is the danger of aiming for immortality: in trying to satisfy the needs of a future one knows nothing about, one subtracts and cuts and sands away the peculiar, aiming for the permanent, and the finished piece is an “essence” that ends up feeling like less than you started with.

Some sample song titles: “Deepens with Time,” “The Morning Light,” “Lost in Thought.” What deepens with time? Holding a beloved person's hand, hearing a mother's voice, an old song—again, any song, any voice, any mother. So, instead of a strange, personal reflection like “God Loves Everyone,” we get lines like these, on “Back of My Hand”: “Like the back of my hands / I know if there's a god / That only he understands / What to us just seems so odd.”

Odd? Plenty of people might be repelled and offended (or moved and stirred) by “God Loves Everyone.” I was casually dismissive of Sexsmith's spirituality when I first wrote about his work, but I feel my mistake now partially because the song convinced me. No one will have a similar reaction—or any particularly strong reaction—to the bouncy sentiments in “Back of My Hand.”

When Sexsmith steps away from Elysium, it is clear that none of his talent has left him. The songs I like the best on Forever Endeavour are actually the goofy ones, because they are so much less self-conscious: “Me, Myself, and Wine” and “She Does My Heart Good.” And there is one folk-y song, “Sneak Out the Back Door,” with just Sexsmith and a guitar, that is simply great. It's the only one off this album whose chords I immediately felt the need to figure out so I could sing it myself.

Will the song last? I have no idea. We have no idea what the needs of posterity might be and how we can meet them, or the strange paths by which a work of art sticks around. Many of the world's greatest artists—Shakespeare and Pushkin come to mind—have shown utter indifference to the preservation of their writing, and once upon a time most artists didn't even bother to sign their work. Increasingly I find this something to admire. You do your best, make some reasonable effort to get an audience, and then you let it go.

Time does its work; it saves some of Shakespeare's plays from the fire, and destroys almost all of the ones that Sophocles and Aeschylus wrote. It is currently extirpating hundreds of languages, and all of the stories and myths and songs that were created through them. The idea of posterity (we forget this, I think, in countries that have had their way for a while) relies on one's confidence in the continuity of a cultural tradition. If this confidence breaks apart, it can be paralyzing (I speak from experience) until one finally decides to push this idea of immortality quite forcefully away. Whenever I am tempted by it, I remember the idiot critic who goes around shouting “Glawr” through the centuries in Virginia Woolf's Orlando (he means gloire), while remaining continuously blind to the beauty in front of his nose.

This idea of lasting work—of eternal songbooks and Western canons—has always struck me as making art a kind of substitute religion. Since I've always had a hard time embracing any religious faith, I once found it an attractive one. I now feel like it's a bad religion for both its devotees and its priests. To aspire to create something eternal is an anti-spiritual idea, because it aims for a permanence that has never been true of human works of any kind; it also assigns a transcendent value to artistic activity that simply doesn't belong to it, and does so moreover with the aim of self glorification.

I think we are always punished for such presumption. The spirits withdraw a little, and then some more. If anyone can call them back, though, as he has so many times over the years, it is Sexsmith. And I hope he names his next album something like Way Station or All Things Must Pass.

No comments: