So Sexsmith It Hurts

Even Bob Rock can't cheer up Canada's songwriter laureate.

Let's say you're playing blackjack at a tribal casino. You get up $100, only to see your ledger slowly nudged down to negative $100. As soon as you contemplate cutting your losses, it creeps back up to positive territory again. This cycle continues for six hours. You've also been drinking, and even nursed beers are going to your head. When your cocktail waitress informs you it's last call, you stand up and drop every dollar you've got on the felt. Win the final hand and you walk out of the casino flush. Lose and you mope out broke, never to return.

When you're Ron Sexsmith, whom Leslie Feist reveres as "Canada's songwriter laureate," and you decide to have Bob Rock (Bon Jovi, Metallica) produce your latest record, Long Player Late Bloomer (released in early March), it's the career equivalent of a walk-off bet. You're gambling that your small but rabid base of admirers will forgive you such a blatant play at commercial success, should that success even come.

Granted, the record's most radio-friendly track, "Love Shines," is more slick and textured than your average Sexsmith song, but only incrementally so. Selected specifically to edge up the the cherubic balladeer for the masses, Rock can't bring himself to tinker much with the 47-year-old Sexsmith's melancholy comfort zone. The net result is that Long Player is far less risky than 2008's horn-laden Exit Strategy of the Soul. It's still an outstanding record, but as walk-off bets go, it's the equivalent of a push.

Yet it just so happens that Sexsmith doubled down, allowing his sessions with Rock to be filmed. Coupled with archival footage, they form the basis for a rockumentary, also called Love Shines, which screened this month at SXSW. It's a touchingly frank portrait of a sweet, bashful, anxiety-ridden performer who's not sure whether his Groundhog Day career of glowing reviews and disappointing sales is worth the trouble anymore. One particularly moving scene has Sexsmith telling Rock that he often struggles to open his eyes onstage because he doesn't want to see anybody seeing him. I Am Trying to Break Your Heart meets Anvil! The Story of Anvil, with laudatory testimonials (McCartney comparisons fittingly abound) from Feist, Elvis Costello, Daniel Lanois, Steve Earle, and Kiefer Sutherland, it's the type of valedictory many artists have to die for (literally). If Sexsmith is to walk out of the casino happy, his connections would be wise to get this film, not Rock's record, in front of as many people as possible.

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