Listen to this track by self-professed old-school singer-songwriter and AM radio fan from way back Ron Sexsmith. It’s “Radio”, the first single off of his 2017 record The Last Rider.
The album was the first record cut with his long-time touring band playing all the parts in an expectedly musically simpatico manner. This includes drummer and singer Don Kerr, with whom Sexsmith also produced the record on the shores of Lake Ontario at The Bathhouse in Kingston, Ontario. This is a bona-fide homegrown album in many respects, then.
Maybe that’s why the album sounds so warm and contented with Bill Withers meets Gordon Lightfoot meets The Kinks textures a-plenty. Sexsmith is known for those kinds of textures and moods through out his incredibly consistent discography. Yet on many of his releases this decade, some of his disdain for recent industry trends and his frustrations with the increasingly complicated game of putting out music in the way he wants to has definitely seeped into his optimism-under-pressure songwriting worldview.
Representing some of that soft-spoken ire is this song, “Radio”. On the surface, this song really does seem of the “things just ain’t what they used to be” variety that finds the narrator scratching his head as the clowns take over the circus and as the show becomes run of the mill. Yet here beneath what seems to be a complaint about the state of the world, there’s greater dimension to be found.
Sexsmith has always tried to make records that hang together as whole statements, with each song making its contribution. Where does “Radio”, its first single, play into that? Well, I think it has to do with a theme that Sexsmith has dealt with in the past; the passage of time and humanity’s relationship to it. Beneath the more curmudgeonly (for Sexsmith!) veneer of this song about how the world seems overrun with cynical hacks, we find the familiar Sexsmithian threads of memory, nostalgia, and how sometimes both of those can dog you as you get older.
“Radio” belies any of the heaviness that implies. Through its running time, it becomes more obvious that this song is about childhood, and about a time when songs on the radio meant so much. Hits on the AM dial in the 1970s and 1980s in particular were life-affirming tokens for generations of people who believed that we were going places in an upcoming century, that an exciting and bright future was coming up fast to meet our dreams of it head-on. In this, “Radio” is also about where the world has gone since Sexsmith and his generation (me included!) were young and idealistic, and how short we’ve come up to where we thought we’d go as a civilization by the 21st century.
The promise of the future turned out to be a somewhat empty one when compared to the dreams of the past. Things did not get easier or brighter as the song on the radio from another era once promised. It’s turned out to be, for many, more like a pair of socks at Christmas at best, or at worst “the daydream that had to make room for the nightmare that was to be”. Maybe too, it’s that our expectations of what was to come really were through “rose-coloured glasses, I recall” both in looking forward while young and now looking back to that more innocent time through middle-aged perceptions that we realize have turned out to be somewhat deceptive all along, and for dreamers even more so.
What comes more and increasingly apparent as we get older is that the world as we know it is always on the move and cannot really be held in amber in any objective way. The world comes to an end and fades away just as a new version of itself fades in, ramps up, and fades away again to make way for an even newer version. Only our hazy and romanticized memories of it as we knew it can hold it in place. So we hold onto those memories that we most treasure like still frames in a roll of film, even if the movie of our lives in the here and now has kept rolling all the while. Welcome to the human condition.
In Sexsmith’s song, as is his usual approach, these all-encompassing tensions aren’t trivialized. But neither is”Radio” a lament of what’s been lost, even if we sometimes feel that “they’ve picked all the berries that grew on blueberry hill”. In the end, “Radio” feels more like a celebration of those things from our childhoods and teen years that are the most meaningful to us even now that we’re older, finding ourselves in a world that feels more and more strange and further away from what we once knew. This song is a part of a collage of tunes on this album about the things we can count on (“Evergreen”, “Worried Song”), our favourite memories (“Breakfast Ethereal”, “West Gwillimbury”), our unchanging ideals (“Dreams Are Bigger”, “Upward Dog”), and the poignant and bittersweet nature of life itself (“Man At The Gate (1913)”).
Just as the world is continually undergoing transformations, getting clarity of what’s important seems to be the most obvious goal for which to strive after living through a few different variations of our world. And in the end, sometimes the songs we hold near and dear to our hearts that have provided our soundtrack all along can still help us bring everything into focus, even if radio play is sometimes scarce.
At the time of this writing, Ron Sexsmith is currently touring The Last Rider. To learn more, take a trip over to ronsexsmith.com.