Throughout the latter half of the '90s, Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith was a reliable source of tasteful folk songs for the kind of music fan who distrusts genius and values classicism. Then came 2001's Blue Boy and 2002's Cobblestone Runway, two records that expanded Sexsmith's vocabulary with the addition of, respectively, gruff country-rock overtones and Joe Henry-esque electronic textures. Now, Sexsmith has taken yet another turn with the richly orchestrated pop of Retriever, an album which suggests what would happen if the hooks of Marshall Crenshaw circa 1982 met up with the sophistication of Elvis Costello today.
Retriever is unmistakably a Sexsmith effort, complete with his sweetly shaky voice, his spare guitar twang, and his fluid melodies. But while Sexsmith's music once seemed both too precise and too remote, on Retriever, he brings a subtle urgency to a set of songs that could double as proverbs. From the opening line"I'm a bit run down, but I'm okay"Retriever offers warnings and reassurances, as Sexsmith indicates repeatedly that he's discovered something of value that he's not going to let out of his sight.
The album builds in intensity as it goes along, opening with three consecutive midtempo pop songs (peaking with the George Harrison-esque "Not About To Lose") before varying the pace with the hymn-like piano ballad "Tomorrow In Her Eyes," the impassioned "From Now On," and the acoustic lament "For The Driver." Then Sexsmith hits the best song of the record, and perhaps his career: "Wishing Wells," a "time to put away childish things" command set to a swinging beat and propulsive guitar.
"Wishing Wells" lies at the center of this set, which makes plenty of observations along the lines of "I fear sometimes we ain't got a hope in hell." But the soul of Retriever resonates in songs like the seductive "Whatever It Takes" and the romantic "How On Earth," in which Sexsmith gives thanks for love. The record closes with the line "Though in your house sorrow dwells / It never stays / I know it well," a note of sublime comfort from an artist who, after a decade, seems to be finding his voice while still conjuring words worth saying.