Robbie Fulks Talks Ron Sexsmith’s Carousel One

On his new album, one of the great living songwriters delivers a big payoff with the barest-seeming tools.

Crossing Shattuck Avenue after a gig in Berkeley a few years ago, a fellow I recognized from my last six or seven appearances there waved to me. “Great show, Robbie!” he said, adding with a slight drop in pitch, “As always.” And here’s Ron Sexsmith with a new record, his 14th since 1991, and… it’s great! As always.

Lamenting that someone of rare and clear talent isn’t as lavishly rewarded as one of our many mediocre celebrities — isn’t that just a tiresome angle? So let’s keep this part brief. If he had been lucky enough to have been hit by a bus directly after his 1990s trio of Mitchell Froom-produced gems, Ron would be today be up in the empyrean, snuggled between Nick Drake and Judee Sill. Instead, he has violated tortured-artist etiquette by living long and working hard. He has never disappeared long enough to be missed or mythologized. And his disinclination to vary his sound and approach much since those early records has probably depressed his mystique as well.

To be fair, Ron has pulled the occasional adventurous move there at his purring conveyor belt of recorded excellence. Hiring as producers Bob Rock and Steve Earle for an album each was bold — and the outcome with Mr. Rock, 2011’s Long Player Late Bloomer, was a stunner. 2002’s Cobblestone Runway was dressed with synthesizers. And here and there, the singer-writer has broken from his wistful melody-maker persona, toying with edgy chromaticism or taking a brash narrative stance.

But all in all, our man does not come off the adventurer type. Like P.G. Wodehouse’s books, Ron’s records reliably offer his fans a sensually rapturous getaway into a familiar invented landscape. They, the records, are a sure bet. The needle goes down, the McCartneyesque bass lines commence; an icy, quasi-classical piano motif sounds, conjuring Mr. George Martin in plush slippers; a double-tracked voice sadly informs you that the end of day is drawing near and what is lost will not be regained; you unloose a sigh of addled contentment.

So, is everything in its right place, here in version 14.0? (It’s named Carousel One, after a beloved baggage area at LAX.) It is. Knockout first track? Yep. (Called “Sure as the Sky,” it’s an instant classic, neck-and-neck with “Secret Heart,” “Hard Bargain” and “Get In Line,” a song that, after you’ve heard it once or twice, will stay with you for all your life, making it modestly better.) There are the tenderly compressed rock-band instruments. There is the crushing melancholy of the daily observed world, leavened — just enough to make existence worth the bother — by love and flashes of beauty. There are melismas. No one works weird melismas as unstintingly as Ron Sexsmith, whose lines of austere, Lutheran-hymnal solidity tail without warning into baroque curlicues. On paper, these one-syllable workouts, and the upward gusts he sometimes pumps into his melodies, may look like bravura ornamentation, but Ron (who’s a fantastic singer) delivers them with a weak air, sometimes flatly, as though he’s giving it his best but it’s early in the day and he just got off a plane. The effect is that an improbable gesture is naturalized by contact with its creator’s personality. Really, the effect of a sneaky triumph by halfhearted means pervades his recordings.

Jim Scott is the producer this time out, a datum of surprisingly small pertinence, as far as I can hear. A template of a Sexsmithian sound, minted on the Froom records, honored on subsequent Martin Terefe productions, and veered from only on the Earle/Kennedy efforts, seems to operate habitually now. The consistency is all the more striking when you compare personnel between Ron’s eponymous, Harry Nilsson-dedicated 1995 release and Carousel One: the distance between drummers Jerry Marotta and Don Heffington, or bassists Jerry Scheff and Bob Glaub, isn’t cavernous but isn’t minute either, yet I’d be hard-pressed to pass a blind test. I suspect the early players exert some influence on their successors. I’d guess too that the timefeel and bass lines of Ron’s guitar playing pull the performances into consistent areas, and that the gentleness of his singing guides and limits the instrumental dynamic. Whatever the behind-the-magic methods, it’s great (as always!) to hear players working this joyfully in such a meticulously planned environment. I sometimes catch myself cynically thinking, after learning what expensive producer and triple-scale players are allied with the latest Sexsmith thousand-seller: how on earth does that compute? The likeliest answer is the simplest: songs this good don’t come around the bend very often. Mr. Glaub sounds particularly happy; in this hyper-Beatles-aware land, the bassist is almost co-equal with the vocalist, enjoying unwonted freedom and authority.

For a guy who’s one of the great living songwriters, Ron has a pretty breezy, non-intellectual relationship going with the language. He verges guiltlessly on the trite and the baldly sentimental and, at his weakest, traffics cozily in bromides. Scanning the titles on his record covers before hearing the songs themselves, you fear the worst. These are tracks 3 through 15 on Carousel One: “Loving You,” “Before the Light Is Gone,” “Lucky Penny,” “Getaway Car,” “Nothing Feels the Same Anymore,” “Sun’s Coming Out,” “Lord Knows,” “All Our Tomorrows,” “No One,” “Can’t Get My Act Together,” “Tumbling Sky,” “Many Times” and “The Other Side.” Is your heart still beating? These are dangerously insubstantial, shopworn phrases to center a work of art on. It’s a wonder — I’ll try to elaborate on it more analytically in a moment — but most of the songs attached to these shopworn phrases transcend their unpromising conceits. In context, the title words surrender some of their headline status; they join with the simple language around them to manage, as in the best country music, a big payoff with the barest-seeming tools.

“Saint Bernard” is, in the way of Ron’s older tunes “Michael and His Dad” or “Dragonfly on Bay Street,” an exception. It’s a piece of whimsy paying tribute to an imaginary pet which, like Bob and Ray’s great Tippy the Wonder Dog, goes above and beyond in selfless service: “Who else is gonna rescue me/When I’m face down in the snow/No other dog looks more like me/And can fill in/When I’m ill and/Unable to make the show… There’s a flask around his neck/Of brandy for me/To sip on as I reflect/On immortality/Like a four-legged minibar….” The embedded near-rhymes are neat. And “Bernard” as line-ender presents a notable chance to pair “hard” with a few sensible rhyming options, since the dog can easily fit in a yard, and serve as a guard — and if you want to go the fuzzier “minibar” route, fine, though before consulting the lyrics I heard “mini-Bard,” which is an appetizing thought as well. But most startling: a songwriter poking fun at the way he looks in his lyrics? When did that become permissible? Is there a precedent? Did Björk sing “I Saw an Invader from Mars in My Mirror” and I missed it? I commend Ron for this envelope-pushing. And I appreciate it when, now and then, he steps away from his all-inclusive observer-of-humanity voice and dives into a concrete, local situation.

Another outlier is “Getaway Car,” a 4/4 midtempo rocker distinguished by creative, Monk-like chords (E, C, Bb, back to E; and a 3/4 pickup bar on C7) that brings some welcome flat-five spice to all the diatonic sweetness. I’m not crazy about the bridge lyric, “Getaway car, I love you,” but how important are all these words I’m nitpicking anyway? Writing this piece has forced me to think through and express some objections that may occur to me in the vaguest way as I bask in otherwise uncritical enjoyment of Ron’s music. That is, what seem in the after-experience analysis to be modest but definite lapses barely register inside the experience. This leads me to a generalization about my response to recorded music, which I offer at the risk of devaluing my windy Talkhouse essay: When I perceive a handmade, fought-for formal excellence, and can gain a clear intuition about the creator’s fundamental sincerity, other matters wither away.

By formal excellence, I mean the playing and production described above, as well as what I’d call, in my puffed-up post-listening mode, the architectural strategies. Ron’s love of rhyme (not just the necessary ones but the A’s in ABAB, and those like the internal extras in “Saint Bernard”), parallel structure (“sure as the sky,” verse 1; “sure as the rain,” verse 2; “sure as the grass,” verse 3), shapely bridges, chord alterations, vivid metaphors, and even wily enjambments (please check out “The Other Side” for this), imbue his songs with a near-steroidal strength. And that’s not even mentioning the more important part, the harmonic stuff!

As to the sincerity: after taking in eight of his 14 albums (hey, he’s hard to keep up with, and I have to save some pleasures for my dotage), I have the impression — inevitable, inevitably false, and almost surely not completely false — that I know this fellow. He’s an impractical and introspective guy who walks around spacily, humming made-up melodies. He wakes late. Has few close friends. He sits in a room, looking out the window, plunking abstractedly on a guitar and letting conversational phrases flit through his mind, examining their meanings as they flit. He beholds nature with due respect. Out of these pure attitudes and instincts come the nuclei of these songs. We might not be able to keep pace with Ron Sexsmith’s output, but at least we can refrain from faulting him for his consistency and fertility. In return for his hard work and sincerity, let’s try to be sincerely grateful for these great records.

Robbie Fulks is a musician — country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics — living near Chicago. He has made a dozen solo records, the latest of which, Gone Away Backward, came out in 2013 and features small acoustic string groups playing sad songs about modern American life.  His website is here.