Listen to this track by supposed melancholic singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Saint Bernard”, the lead single from his most recent record Carousel One, to be released next week in the United States and in Canada.
The new record is the follow up to 2013’s Forever Endeavour, which was kind of like the Sunday morning album from his Saturday night-before flirtation with a wider audience as depicted in the 2010 documentary Love Shines and the associated album Long Player, Late Bloomer. Both of those records helped to bring Sexsmith out of what he considered to be a career funk in terms of sales and exposure, although much of their content framed that sense of struggle that his career was getting away from him.
Often pegged as a melancholic songwriter (incorrectly, in my view), these albums seemed to confirm him as one who deals in the bigger questions in life, the weighty themes that humanity has always wrestled with; the nature of success, of happiness, and an ever-present sense of mortality that presides over our lives. I suppose it makes sense that critics have pigeonholed him in the sombre section of their inner record collections after hearing these two albums from him, even if the songs themselves never sound as weighty as the themes with which they deal.
But, this single cracks all of that open, and shows a side of Ron Sexsmith that isn’t quite as available on the F-keys of most rock journalists’ laptops.
Musically speaking on this new song, we’re getting what we want from Sexsmith. It features an appealing Ray Davies-worthy melody married to a lilting folk-rock feel (and a little bit country, in the words of Marie Osmond…) that hearkens back to a golden era of A.M radio singles. Sexsmith is known for his capacity for writing songs that most writers slap their own foreheads over, wondering why they hadn’t written them themselves. Whatever you might think about the whole “melancholy” question, this innate feel for melody is the heart of Ron Sexsmith’s talent as a writer and musician.
With this tune, you’re getting something else besides – whimsy! Even the album cover shows our hero actually smiling contentedly. This song brings a sense of self-awareness that we listeners and avid fans may be slapping our own foreheads over. Of course a Saint Bernard is Ron Sexsmith’s spirit animal! It’s as if by putting out this single, he’s beating all of us to the punch on that score. Yet, the song didn’t have its origins that way, but rather as the result of a happy accident, inspired by a picture of the titular dog picked up in a secondhand shop by his wife, Colleen.
This wasn’t the first time the image of a Saint Bernard was connected with Sexsmith, otherwise known on album covers for his distinct Saint Bernard-like frown. Sexsmith had identified his affinity for the image of the frowning and noble dog breed early on in an interview he gave in Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper around the time Forever Endeavour was coming out. In that interview, he talked about his looks and how they often run contrary to how most people think a famous person should look, and his implied insecurities around all of that. The Saint Bernard certainly has associations with a singular look. But it’s also a figure of bravery, and connected to the idea that when your face is down in the snow and you need rescuing, there’s no better animal to have on your side. Besides the inspiration provided by Colleen’s photo, perhaps that’s why this song was written. It serves as a reminder that even in the middle of thoughts of one’s mortality, there are good things waiting in our own imaginary backyards to help prop us all up and give us a spiritual ballast to keep going. Yet, it’s not as serious as all that this time around. That sense of whimsy in this song is just as important as the idea of being rescued, particularly when that rescue is thanks to “a four legged mini-bar”.
And there’s another point about Ron Sexsmith; the guy has an active sense of humour and always has. Have you followed him on Twitter yet? If so, you know what I’m talking about. There are more puns for your buck on Sexsmith’s Twitter feed. It’s not all gloomy reflections on lost love and the stark reality that life will end one day. And really, that’s never been the takeaway from his work anyway, even if Sexsmith himself describes some of his more recent work as being musically upbeat, and lyrically dark. This time, that sense of humour which is equally a part of his personality comes through while continuing to acknowledge that life can be a challenge, with the need to rely on friends when you need comfort, even if they are of the imaginary canine variety.
So, what about that question of melancholy that many critics attach to Ron Sexsmith’s songs? Well, here’s the thing. There’s a thread running through his work that many of them miss that has stayed consistent through out a now 14-album career; that hard times do not require hard attitudes or hard feelings, and that during times of existential struggle, beauty and inspiration can be found even in the most unconventional of places, often just at the right time.
Ron Sexsmith’s new record Carousel One is out in the United States on March 30, and in Canada on March 31. You can pre-order it at Ronsexsmith.com.