Ron Sexsmith “Vivian Line”

Cooking Vinyl, 2023

Mayor of Melody Town, Ontario re-elected for the 17th time.

Americana songwriting has a history. Perhaps more than any other genre of popular song, the annals of whatever it is that presents as Americana are littered with instances of artists using their troubles as inspiration for their art. Whether this be suffering the failures of love, enduring the anguish of malicious personal demons or bearing the vicissitudes of any other everyday struggle, artists are keen to share their tussles with us. And we seem equally keen to vicariously share in them in return.

Take, as an example, AUK’s very recent presentation of the latest release from Andrew Gabbard. The track is entitled ‘Glum & Empty’ and we note Gabbard’s many concerns “about wider problems” that conjure a “feeling of a melancholic collapse” and leave him (and us?) “in a bad place”.  It’s a fine song ‘n all and it communicates the author’s struggles well, but sometimes it can feel like there is just too much loyalty to the notion of the ‘tortured artist’. It can be too easy to play down art that, like Ron Sexsmith’s, comes from a simpler, more contented and more reachable place.

Ron Sexsmith has never bought into the trope of pain as the spur for creativity. On his new long player ‘Vivian Line’ he makes this explicitly and abundantly clear. In the album’s first single and one of its stand-out tracks ‘What I Had in Mind’ he offers, in his usual direct and uncomplicated way, what amounts to a manifesto for the record (and indeed his career): “I could never see the relevance or the intelligence of preaching gloom and doom”. Just reading these simple sentiments you can almost sense the melodic loveliness of the accompanying country-tinged tune.

In total the 12 songs on ‘Vivian Line’ clock in at barely past the 30-minute mark, yet they pack in as much joyous and uplifting sing-along tunefulness as can be found in the entire portfolios of some much more celebrated names. These are songs that are open-hearted and accessible, they make us feel welcome and cherished in a way that is good for the soul. Even when he is dealing with themes that are not so obviously contented, Sexsmith is able to sketch perceptive and poetic observations of the world he experiences. Observations that are at once realistic about our travails and offer us hope for our future. Take ‘One Bird Calling’ in which he recounts birdsong that seems to reflect that “many tears are falling for the ones no longer there” and which then leads Sexsmith to ruminate on the simple pleasures that make things ok “all the blessings I feel right now, oh how lucky we are to have a home.”

It can be too easy to see these epithets as somehow lacking the seriousness of great art or simply as damning with faint praise. That is a temptation that must be resisted here for what is abundantly evident throughout this LP is the care and thought that has gone into its making. It takes a lot of concentrated hard graft to sound this simply lovely and yet remain both interesting and emotionally engaging. The song-craft throughout the album is precise and finely tuned. Sexsmith is proud of maintaining his ‘no collaborations’ policy in writing his albums but at the same time able to offer a playful song like ‘Outdated and Antiquated’, which he acknowledges “is me taking the piss out of myself” for exactly this single-minded devotion to individual compositional craftsmanship.

On “Vivian Line” the craftsmanship is aided by collaboration in production rather than composition. The record was produced by Brad Jones at his studio in Nashville.  Jones, previously bassist on three of Sesxmith’s earlier records, has genuine Powerpop pedigree with production credits for Cotton Mather, Matthew Sweet, Imperial Drag and Josh Rouse amongst many. Jones and Sexsmith have added numerous incidental, almost baroque, production flourishes that add depth and nuance to the upfront ‘poppy’ sound. They have also utilised a vault-full of interesting instrumentation to bolster these arrangements; with orchestrated strings and woodwind, harpsichord, piano, Fender Rhodes and harmonium all featuring. The most usual comparison applied to Sexsmith is Elvis Costello and there are certainly echoes of The Imposters’ vocal phrasing to his delivery here. However, given the production and arrangements of ‘Vivian Line’ a better contrast would be the chamber pop of Richard Swift or Eric Matthews allied to a bucolic 1970’s Ray Davies – evoking whatever is the Ontario equivalent of a village green.

In interviews promoting the record Sexsmith has talked about how well it represents what he is about as a songwriter and performing artist. It captures his attempts to reflect both his own “domestic bliss” in his relatively new home of semi-rural Ontario and weightier concerns about the challenges faced by people trying to negotiate the world as it is today. What emerges is a record that initially appears meditative, perhaps even pensive sounding but which upon deeper appraisal reveals a real optimistic and buoyant beating heart. The opener ‘A Place Called Love’ perfectly encapsulates this ultimately positive outlook; with a swelling arrangement and words that coax us to “Hold on, beyond hard times there’s a place called love”.

Ultimately when listening to “Vivian Line” we absorb the loveliness and candour of Ron Sexsmith’s art rather than actively devouring it. We consume it by osmosis. Letting it seep into our consciousness and gently insinuate its way into lifting our mood and, for the duration of the record, making our world just a little more bearable.


About Guy Lincoln 73 Articles
Americana, New Country, Alt-country, No Depression, Twangcore, Cow-punk, Neo-traditionalists, Countrypolitan... whatever.
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments