This article was written by Vaughan Roberts, co-author of Personal Jesus: How Popular Music Shapes Our Souls.
Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith has a legion of big-name fans including Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Chris Martin (of Coldplay). His songs have been covered by Rod Stewart, Michael Bublé, k.d. lang, and Nick Lowe among many others, but he’s much less well known than he deserves to be. He’s been a regular at the Christian Greenbelt Arts Festival in the UK, and tracks from his 2011 performance can be found on YouTube here (starting at 4:53).
His latest album, titled Forever Endeavour (2013), should not be missed. It combines melancholy reflections on being lost with no direction (”Nowhere to Go”), musings on leaving and saying goodbyes (“Sneak Out The Back Door”), and upbeat love songs (”She Does My Heart Good”). Two bonus tracks include Sexsmith collaborating with Academy Award and Tony Award–winning lyricist Don Black—well known for his work in movies (James Bond, Born Free, True Grit) and musical theatre (with Andrew Lloyd Webber and others).
As with most of Ron Sexsmith’s songs, there are few sustained theological statements. “God Loves Everyone” from Cobblestone Runway (2002) is one of the few exceptions. But references on this collection—to Satan and prayer on “Snake Road,” no rest for the wicked (Isa. 48: 22) on “Blind Eye,” looking down on creation from “Back of My Hand,” and rebirth in “The Morning Light”—suggest an imagination informed by biblical ideas and Christian vocabulary. As the artist himself acknowledges, “Snake Road” is a retelling of the Adam and Eve story.
In terms of ideas set out in Personal Jesus, there are several nods to the sky, stars, and moon as images for transcendence. And at times Sexsmith seems to wallow in friendships and partnerships, even when they’ve gone awry. The body is also a constant theme, as the album opens with an intriguingly embodied encounter with nowhere.
One thing that struck me is the deep sense of nostalgia in these songs. This emerges not only in the profound sense of wistfulness in his lyrics—especially in a song about memories (“Deepens with Time”)—but also in references to older technology such as a phonograph (“Me, Myself and Wine”) and super 8 recording (“Back of My Hand”). We touch on links between popular music and nostalgia in Personal Jesus and will be elaborating more on memory in two forthcoming articles on habits of listening.