When I heard that Ron Sexsmith was going to be sitting in the producer's chair for the first time, alongside long-time collaborator, drummer and vocal harmony man Don Kerr for his fifteenth studio album, The Last Rider, well, I was not expecting it to sound quite like this! For some reason I had imagined that we’d see him stepping far away from the high-end studio production values (or some detractors might say auto-tune nightmare) of Bob Rock’s production on Long Player Late Bloomer, and return to the rootsy, often percussive, sound of his early albums with Mitchell Froom. I felt like the sound of these two men, Kerr and Sexsmith, playing off one another, was the beating heart of a life-long career of music making. The sound of their two voices singing in harmony, or indeed Kerr’s drums finding interesting grooves to hold beneath Sexsmith’s dexterous acoustic guitar, seem to create an atmosphere and magic all their own. I’ve seen that magic first-hand, in a number of treasured evenings where I’ve been lucky enough to see Ron live with his band. So what was I expecting? A return to acoustic melancholia in the vein of Ron Sexsmith. And what have we got? At first listen it sounds more like a Paul McCartney solo album from the early 80s, or that first posthumous Roy Orbison album, King of Hearts, typified by the Jeff Lynne-produced big single, ‘I Drove All Night’ with its in-yer-face compressed drums.
Ron Sexsmith is one of the great songwriters of our generation, it’s a fact that songwriters everywhere seem to know but, despite winning many accolades over the years including three Juno awards, he’s never been able to transfer that critical acclaim into cross-over commercial success (unless you count Michael Buble covering ‘Whatever It Takes’ from Ron’s 2004 album Retriever). It’s a theme he’s not been afraid to visit in his writing, with several albums and songs hinting at this being the unfortunate story of his life. Over the years what used to come across as slightly grumpy defeatism has matured into a charming self-deprecating wit. When I saw him live in 2015, just the man with his acoustic touring Carousel One, this really came across: Ron seemed to be winding down a little, and enjoying himself in the process. Far from The Last Rider being pitched as a big come-back album, it feels more like he’s teasing us that this could be the last. Out on the road around the world, with a full band for the first time in many a year, it feels like a farewell tour. The album cover, with Ron and the band in a playful nod to Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, also creates that vibe – but crucially it’s far from a sombre scene. The sunlight, the dressing gowns, the casually fallen Roman-esque column to one side. It all sets the scene nicely for what lies ahead on the record within: this could well be his final offering but, if it is, Ron isn’t going out with a bang or a whimper: he’s having fun instead.
It’s a collection of 15 wonderfully melodic songs, laden with hooks and harmonies, just as you might expect. Songs that seldom linger any longer than they absolutely have to. The production tends towards smooth and mellifluous, and at times I find myself reminded, sonically, of the Manic's ‘acoustic’ album Rewind The Film, in the way that mellow instrumentation is given a high compression directness. The album embraces this modern production style of everything sounding big in a well balanced mix, even when it’s a mellow number. This is also what reminds me of the early McCartney stuff, besides the fact I can easily imagine Ron is a huge fan. Rather than the intimacy and dynamics of an analogue folk record, Ron has gone for a big, bright and, at times, lavish pop sound.
After a first listen where I’m a little distracted by the occasional forays into the overly-cheesy (I’m looking at you ‘Evergreen’), I start to appreciate the quirks, craft and cleverness of this album. ‘Breakfast Ethereal’ is the first big surprise, it sounds like ELO re-imagining Joni Mitchell, with an arrangement that’s really prog, although you might be distracted from that by all the orchestral flourishes. There’s even a rare glimpse of Kerr’s voice, singing lead rather than providing harmonies, and what a voice he has! ‘Who We Are Right Now’ captures some of those jazzy inversions that serve C Duncan’s cool modern folk so well. ‘Shoreline’ is probably the closest they get to that early Ron sound, with gorgeous guitar and percussion married to classic romantic jazzy songcraft, but it’s enhanced by beautiful strings and lounge piano. ‘Upward Dog’ is a bit of a curio, with its funky clavichord giving it a slight air of The Band’s ‘Up On Cripple Creek’. At the same time it sounds classic and sneakily more progressive than Sexsmith arrangements tend to be, and then there’s the lyric, probably another playful homage to Ron’s beloved St Bernard. ‘Only Trouble Is’ is another lush ballad, that has a hint of the recent Grandaddy sound, as heard on their recent return to form record Last Place. It’s especially so in the verses, but I don’t think Jason Lytle would ever have come up with that chorus, with those muted background sha-la-la’s.
From the title you might expect ‘Radio’ is a slightly cynical ploy at gaining some radio coverage to back the release, but the song is, again, incredibly playful. A driving piano groove, smart melodies, and well-paced momentum shifts keep the listener hooked. It’s a great starting point for the record and, whether it was cynically designed so, or not, it makes for a great single. The album ends on what’s quite possibly my favourite note, ‘Man At The Gate (1913)’. I’ve long loved the sound of brass in a mournful context, and they’ve pulled together a great example to close the album. When the brushed drums are in they’re beautifully up-front, you can hear every little dink or sweep of detail, then, at just the right moments they strip that all away to allow Ron’s quivering voice and that sombre brass to fill all the available space. It comes back with a slight reprise, a lush distant trumpet, nostalgic, sorrowful and triumphant all at once. If this really is Ron Sexsmith’s last ride then this is a great note to go out on.