Listen to this track by St. Catharines Ontario-born singer-songwriter and teller of tales Ron Sexsmith. It’s “The Idiot Boy”, a deep cut as taken from his 1999 album Whereabouts, his third record. The song traces the history of humankind itself through a distinctly Biblical lens, tongue firmly in cheek. In it, the titular central character is not so much a hero in his own story, but more like his own stumbling block. This is very much in keeping with the whole record.
Whereabouts is a pretty overcast album, full of self-doubt and struggle. On it, Sexsmith seems to live up to his (not ultimately accurate) reputation as a perpetually glum songwriter, with his rainy-day voice not entirely helping to dissuade the casual listener any differently. It was therefore hard for that same casual listener to see the humour in the lyrics, an angle that has also been a part of Sexsmith’s approach. There’s more to this song than what first might be perceived.
Even while “The Idiot Boy” reflects his views on human history, it’s also perhaps a reflection of the songwriter’s own state of being.
One of the many things I love about Sexsmith’s music is its optimism, even if it doesn’t always sound that way. In many of his songs, hardship and angst are commonly found at the centre. But there is almost always a ray of light in there, too. This time, though, despite its whimsical tone musically, it’s ultimately pretty harsh lyrically speaking. With a bouncy little organ riff, happy electric piano, and a lilting acoustic guitar there’s a story of a deeply flawed embodiment of humanity who’s granted the best of all things, yet still manages to fuck it all up anyway. Despite wonders and innovations that we have wrought, it’s pretty easy to trace the journey of human history and come to that same conclusion.
As solid a song as this is, certainly among the best on Whereabouts, the dark tone struck on it is kind of out of character for Ron Sexsmith in the aforementioned optimism stakes. “The Idiot Boy” is more like a Randy Newman song, filtered through cynicism where idealism usually sits. That’s one of the things that makes me think that this song isn’t just a parable about the often ridiculous history of civilization, with cruelty, greed, and murderous rage seeming to be its engine. When I hear it, I can’t help but think it’s about the self-defeating traits in a particular human; the songwriter himself.
A part of this view of mine is due to the other songs that insulate “The Idiot Boy” on Whereabouts, some of which seem to trace the breakdown of a relationship. “Seem To Recall”, “Riverbed”, and “Doomed” are but three. Another important part to this are the songs that would appear on later albums, particularly a song like “Dandelion Wine” from 2004’s Retriever, which is a reflection of a man who’s been something of an idiot boy in the past and has since wised up, although not without suffering considerable loss. By his own admission, Sexsmith had become a “rock cliché” around the time Whereabouts was recorded; a kid in a candy store that becomes a bull in the china shop of his own life. In the middle of all of that, it’s no surprise that there might be some self-loathing to be found in between the lines.
In the middle of any personal angst he was going through, Sexsmith was working up this third record under pressure from his label to score a commercial breakthrough that would match his critical acclaim. That’s a lot for any artist to take on, and another key tension we’d see reflected on ensuing releases, with fear and doubt about his future streaked into the lines of the music. “The Idiot Boy” gives shape to his state of mind as his life got nuttier, trying to stoke the fires of his own success while things elsewhere in his life began to crumble. He poured those intense feelings into the music and added dimension to the kinds of stories he sought to tell all around. With that, he managed to tell our stories, too. Because looking back, we all can recall moments when we feel like we’d taken something good in our lives and shat all over it because of our insecurities and lack of self-knowledge.
Sometimes after we’ve had a chance to gain perspective on our own actions, we realize that we’ve become that same Idiot Boy that we despise in others.
To learn more about the songs on Whereabouts, including this one, I urge you to consult Ron Sexsmith’s self-penned “short sleeve notes” found on ronsexsmith.com.
As of this writing, Ron Sexsmith’s first novel is about to come out. Learn more about that right here.
And finally, check out Sexsmith’s sit-down YouTube version of this song right here.