There's no small amount of irony in the fact that after Ron Sexsmith completed a record focused on his own mortality, the struggle to find an American label gave the Canadian songwriter a glimpse of the death of his career.
"There was a lot of fear, I guess. People we talked to would say, 'We love Ron, but, you know, we can't sign him.'" Sexsmith says via phone from his Toronto home about the label shopping that lasted much of early 2006. "When you're over 24 or 25, people in Los Angeles see you in a different way. That's a sign of the times, I guess." In other words, the 42-year-old songwriter was all but dead to them. We love Ron, but, you know...
It must have been a bit hard to swallow for Sexsmith, who has long been the kid at the cocktail party of adult alternatives and "important songwriters." He put together his first band at 14 and the cassette release he wrote in his 20s, 1991's Grand Opera Lane, got him a deal with Interscope. In 1995, his self-titled major-label debut was clutched in the hands of Elvis Costello on the cover of Mojo like a life raft of youthful relevance. Overnight, the boyish songwriter became a staple of Canadian radio and developed an international following that gave him the kind of reverence typically reserved for old codgers like Costello himself. But when it came time to write songs about the passing of sand through the hourglass on his newest record, Time Being, all of a sudden he'd gotten too old.
Eventually he landed the record on fledgling label Ironworks, the newly minted venture of Kiefer Sutherland and graying Brit popper Jude Cole (just in time for tax season), who've had minor success with VH1 darling Rocco DeLuca. But the record seemed downright hexed when Sexsmith went to Europe to support the European release. "I got robbed in Amsterdam and out of nowhere my partner, Colleen, went missing in Sweden," he says. Colleen eventually turned up unharmed, but when he reflects on the trip he says, "I really felt like the record was cursed."
Like the poet William Matthews, Sexsmith's use of the word "time" seems, often enough, shorthand for the phrase "time left." But even when he sings of a night "darker than it used to," as on "I Think We're Lost," the record's dreamy perspective imbues the twilight themes with far more wonder than regret.
"Even though there is something of a death thread that runs through it," Sexsmith says, "it's certainly not only about the morbid aspects of (death). I'd lost a couple friends when I was writing it, and I'd go to funerals of people who are the same age as me. But it was thinking about how we deal with those kinds of things while we're alive that really set these songs in motion."
Producer Mitchell Froom was responsible for the casual ease of Sexsmith's breakthrough album, and he reunited with the "songwriter's songwriter" for Time Being. "I've always looked for his opinion—even on the records he didn't produce—so there wasn't a lot of time getting to know each other again," Sexsmith says. "But this time around it wasn't the master-pupil thing it used to be. I used to just defer to his opinion whenever we would have different ideas, but by this record I had a couple records under my belt and was more confident in my opinions, so there was more of a compromise. When I was younger, I would have never been brave enough to push for a bluesy song like 'Jazz at the Bookstore.'"
"Jazz at the Bookstore" is one of the more memorable tracks on Time Being. The song is an outlier for more than its blue-note melody; instead of pondering death literally, it addresses the unsightly cultural death of middle age. "Some faint elegance is heard/Now was that Ellington or Bird?" Sexsmith quips to the mid-tempo strut. "Jazz at the Bookstore" shows that Sexsmith has a wry self-awareness that someone 20 years younger could never summon.
But it's the Paul McCartney-inspired tale of "The Grim Trucker" that seems to address Sexsmith's mortality most accurately. In it he sings, "This question weighs on our mind: Will we wake to wings in heaven?/Or to hooves and snout in our next life?" And instead of answering with another well-crafted one-liner, Sexsmith whistles a carefree melody, almost as if he's strolling past a graveyard.