I knew I was setting myself a challenge in picking the top 10 Ron Sexsmith songs, having preferred this to his top 10 albums, and in the end, I’ve opted to make it a two-parter, part one songs up to 2006, for either myself or another writer to post part two at a later date. Even with this, it’s been a challenge, near misses included ‘Wastin’ Time’ from 1995, ‘Former Glory’ from 2002, and ‘Snow Angel’ from 2006. A lyricist par excellence, a fine writer of melodies, and with a truly distinctive voice, his songs shine whether with full band arrangements or played live on guitar or keys. I make no apology for quotes from his lyrics, as these are his outstanding contribution to contemporary music.
Number 10: ‘All in Good Time’ from ‘Time Being’ (2006)
Although his songs often have a melancholy air, there is (almost) always a sense of optimism even in difficult times, and ‘All in Good Time’ has a clear sense of self-reflection, Sexsmith having suffered crises of confidence despite his undoubted talent and the high esteem he is held in by his fellow musicians. The bright arrangement is in perfect sync with his ultimately positive message.
Number 9: ‘God Loves Everyone’ from ‘Cobblestone Runway’ (2002)
Sexsmith has an unashamedly humanitarian take on life, never more so than in this poignant hymn for our time, his response to intolerance, from whichever corner of the faith world it comes. “There are no gates in heaven /Everyone gets in /Queer or straight /Souls of every faith /Hell is in our minds /Hell is in this life /But when it’s gone /God takes everyone.”
Number 8: ‘Still Time’ from ‘Whereabouts’ (1999)
This album was my personal introduction to Ron Sexsmith, and has remained my favourite album of his ever since. This is the first of two selections from the album, ‘Still Time’ features Sexsmith in an optimistic frame of mind, while acknowledging life’s challenges. Mid-tempo with a characteristic melodic hook, he sings “Staring down these days ahead /And the days gone by /All these regrets /Best make room for love /Seems we’re always racing /With trouble too close behind /We may never win /But where there’s still hope/There’s still time”.
Number 7: ‘Imaginary Friends’ from ‘Retriever’ (2004)
A great opening guitar riff marks a stylistic change for Sexsmith, the whole album having a more up-tempo, upbeat feel, and featuring piano from Ed Harcourt. He describes the song in his liner notes as “a sort of cautionary children’s song…” but I think we know the imaginary friends he writes of are definitely of his adult life. Maybe a songwriting nerd point, but I love the way he skips a line after singing “Imaginary friends they will always leave you hanging”.
Number 6:‘Speaking with the Angel’ from ‘Ron Sexsmith’ (1995)
Sexsmith credits this song with getting his career as an artist and writer on the road, making a big impression on Ronnie Vance, later of Interscope Records, who signed him to its publishing arm. Written for his son in 1985, it’s a sweet ode to the innocence of youth. “He don’t know how to lie or undermine you /He don’t know how to steal /How to deal or deceive /So leave him alone /Set him free /Cause he’s speaking with the angel /Speaking with the angel that only he can see.”
Number 5: ‘Foolproof’ from ‘Blue Boy’ (2001)
With the feel of a crooner jazz standard, ‘Foolproof’ has a chilled late-night vibe, with a world-weary vocal, and atmospheric trumpet, as Sexsmith sings “Foolproof /Older and wiser now /And I’m never gonna fall for that old /Never gonna fall for that old /Fairy tale anymore/’Cos I’ve been schooled before /And ‘cos I’m foolproof”.
Number 4:‘Gold in Them Hills’ from ‘Cobblestone Runway’ (2002)
Another charming melodic hook, on piano, introduces us to a finely crafted lyric on the theme of ‘life’s tough, but it will get better’. “I know it doesn’t seem that way /But maybe it’s the perfect day /Even though the bills are piling /And maybe Lady Luck ain’t smiling /But if we’d only open our eyes /We’d see the blessings in disguise /That all the rain clouds are fountains /Though our troubles seem like mountains /There’s gold in them hills /There’s gold in them hills /So don’t lose heart /Give the day a chance to start.”
Number 3:‘Riverbed‘ from ‘Whereabouts’ (1999)
My second choice from this album ‘Riverbed’ has a gloriously languorous feel, with subtle banjo low down in the mix, and the most beautiful reverb-drenched violin instrumental, matching the poetry of his lyrics “Riverbed, I’ll lay my head upon your pillow /And watch the waves go flowing by /Riverbed, underneath the weeping willow /I’ll sleep until the sunlight fills the sky”.
Number 2: ‘Tomorrow in Her Eyes’ from ‘Retriever’ ( 2004)
An achingly beautiful ballad, building from simple piano to strings and percussion, all in less than 2 minutes 30. “I see tomorrow in her eyes /And where my future lies /So I don’t need a crystal ball /At all because I’ve seen tomorrow /In her eyes.”
Number 1: ‘Secret Heart’ from ‘Ron Sexsmith’ (1995)
Perhaps his best-known song, and covered by artists ranging from Feist to Rod Stewart, Raol Malo to Curtis Stigers, ‘Secret Heart’ is a perfect song, with beautifully crafted lyrics, and Sexsmith’s characteristic emotional vocal, over a simple arrangement with guitar, bass, keys and gentle percussion, saying all a songwriter needs to on the fear of rejection, in barely three minutes, with not a wasted word. “Secret heart /Why so mysterious? /Why so sacred, why so serious? /Maybe you’re just acting tough/ Maybe you’re just not man enough/ What’s wrong? /Let her in on your secret heart”. The version here is a live performance from a BBC Songwriters Circle show, where the emotion tugs at the heartstrings.
Strawberry Blond for me
I was a big fan of Mr Sexsmith right through till Retriever then got distracted with other things, came back to him with a vengeance in 2020. I don’t think he has ever put out a bad song. You could easily do a top 100 of his songs. Great idea; more please.
Very much looking forward to seeing him at Nantwich Roots next month.