"Thinking out loud is all I'm doing," sings Ron Sexsmith at the start of his 1997 album, Other Songs (Interscope). "Trying to raise my love above these ruins / With each song I kick it around." I can't imagine a more apt or graceful description of this Toronto songwriter's elusive gift: he treats his often troubling subjects with calm, clarity, and honest melancholy that pass effortlessly into wisdom. Those subjects have changed over the years: Sexsmith's eponymously titled 1995 debut was a collection of tender first-person love songs, and on Other Songs he added sharp but compassionate narratives about other people in the style of his idol Ray Davies. On his new Whereabouts he once again widens his frame of reference without losing focus, pondering his place in the grand scheme of things. On "Must Have Heard It Wrong," a genial soft-rock number propelled by Attractions drummer Pete Thomas, the singer could be addressing his lover or the Almighty when he laments, "Oh, when will I learn / Believing for so long / As if I had faith to burn / Though I must have heard you wrong." Sexsmith's handsome voice is perfectly framed by producer Mitchell Froom's minimal arrangements, in particular the modest strings that decorate the sad, ardent "Right About Now" and the banjo and clarinet that accent the ethereal "Riverbed"; only the New Orleans-style brass of "One Grey Morning" calls attention to itself. Elvis Costello has been one of Sexsmith's biggest boosters, and it's easy to see why: the melodic contours of Sexsmith's songs often recall Costello's, and his vocals--warm and full, but with a serrated edge--are similar as well. But Costello's lyrics, knotted with wordplay and allusion, couldn't be farther from Sexsmith's simple observations. For the time being, anyway, Ron Sexsmith has something no amount of money, fame, or critical acclaim can buy--a clear mind. Tuesday, 6 PM, Starbucks Coffee, 1001 W. North, 312-255-1352; and 8 PM, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport, 773-525-2508. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Wilson.