Perpetually undiscovered Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith had dabbled in everything from country to reggae to chamber pop before settling on Beth Orton-like folk-electronica for 2002’s fine Cobblestone Runway. Though his latest, Retriever, ditches the emphasis on beats for a more uptempo ’70s pop feel, the core aesthetic, centered around acoustic guitars, Beatlesque melodies and slight, ruminative love songs, remains intact.
Retriever manages to be wistful and moving and entirely lovely in its way without seeming in the least bit novel, if only because Sexsmith, with his boundless gifts for simple, oddly exacting pop songs, has always been better at refining than reinventing. Heavy on guitar and piano, Retriever evokes both early Jackson Browne and a less baroque Jeff Buckley, though Sexsmith can be slightly draggy in ways they never were, even in his best moments (like the great, if lugubrious, “Hard Bargain”, which contains the telling couplet, “I’ll keep on playing/That old song/’Cause for all I know/It’s where I belong”).
With its almost-perky melodies and AM radio vibe, Retriever might be Sexsmith’s most upbeat album ever — though not for lack of trying to be otherwise, as he pines for lost love (“Dandelion Wine”) and condemns reality shows and war (“For The Driver”, “From Now On”) with all the excessive mildness only a Canadian folkie can muster. Like Browne and Buckley before him, Sexsmith has a voice that can’t help sounding sad; but here, at least, the darker moments never find much purchase.