Ron Sexsmith's industry cred has always outstripped his commercial presence, with a long list of artists like Paul McCartney, Lucinda Williams, and Coldplay's Chris Martin having championed his distinctive pop compositions. But on his 11th album, Long Player Late Bloomer, Sexsmith sounds more polished and commercially viable than he ever has. Collaborating with producer Bob Rock, best known for his work with the likes of Metallica and Mötley Crüe, Sexsmith has made a record of winning adult pop that capitalizes on his effortless, pure melodies and smoky tenor.
On his previous albums, Sexsmith's choices of producers haven't always played to his strengths, but Rock's light hand makes Long Player Late Bloomer the best sounding record in Sexsmith's extensive catalogue. Rock builds most of his arrangements around straightforward acoustic or electric guitar riffs, with flourishes of harmonica, Hammond B3, and accordion for an additional punch. The result is that songs like "Get in Line" and "Heavenly" split the difference between the modern, coffeehouse-ready AAA of Amos Lee and Sheryl Crow with the easygoing '70s AM radio vibe of Elton John and Nilsson. The record lays Sexsmith's primary influences bare while making use of more contemporary production trends.
It's an album that would play well at Starbucks, sure, but Rock's spot-on production instincts never pull focus from Sexsmith's arch, keenly observed songwriting. There's an ironic tension between the sunny arrangements and the content of "No Help at All" and "Believe It When I See It," which are at turns droll and melancholy. What distinguishes Sexsmith from contemporaries like Ryan Adams and Ben Folds is the precision of the emotions he writes about in each of his songs. The standout on Long Player Late Bloomer is "Michael and His Dad," which finds a widower struggling to make ends meet while raising a young son. Sexsmith takes the song's relatively simple refrain, "It takes more than love/When making do," and infuses it with a heady blend of grief, empathy, and guarded optimism.
Just because Sexsmith's songs are presented straightforwardly, that doesn't mean they're easy. Even the sunniest of his pop songs, such as the terrific lead single, "Love Shines," include references to "nowhere towns" or graveyard signs or exit wounds. But Long Player Late Bloomer works precisely because of that sense of balance, and, to that end, it's a significant step forward for Sexsmith.