THAT RON SEXSMITH is one sly sort - and better for it.
Time and again on his new (11th) "Long Player Late Bloomer" album, this seasoned but chronically underappreciated songcrafter will lure you in, get you humming along with his sunny-sounding, hook-happy tunes, this time polished to a bright sheen by noted producer Bob Rock.
Also enticing is that distinctively keening tenor-toned voice of his, so light yet steeped in emotion, which has won Sexsmith favorable comparisons to, and endorsements from, kindred spirits Ray Davies, Elvis Costello and Paul McCartney.
Ah, but when you put on the headphones and really focus on the lyrics, you'll find some bitter pills to swallow, especially early on in the set with songs like "Get In Line" ("If you mean to shower me with guilt . . . take a number and wait in line") and the Chi-Lites soul-styled "No Help," wherein he notes, "I've been burning the candle at both ends and running myself more ragged than the Raggedy Ann."
Also jumping out is a bleak, hard-luck "memory" song called "Michael and His Dad," which the guy first started writing "when my son was 2," Sexsmith shared recently in a chat prompted by his sold-out show at Tin Angel tomorrow. So how old is the kid now? "Twenty-six."
With not a lot of digging, this heart-on-his-sleeve confessor also shared that a bunch of these songs were written in a "particularly bleak" period when he was down on himself, between record deals and unable to strike gold again as he had with oft-covered songs like "Maybe This Christmas" and "Secret Heart" (the latter recorded by artists as varied as Feist, Rod Stewart, countrypolitan Raul Malo and jazz-attuned Curtis Stigers).
"But the new album does evolve, thematically," Sexsmith was quick to add. "Things turn around for the guy in the songs." And for the artist in real life.
The arc is clear in the title song, a punchy, pianistic (verging on Springsteen florid) anthem placed sixth in the carefully ordered lineup. In it, Sexsmith casts himself as a "late bloomer" and "long player" who could still get things going: "My song is my savior."
Make that "songs." While many music-industry types have advised him to give up on the whole album idea in this iTunes age to just focus on writing single songs that could get placed in movies, TV shows and jingles, "I'm from the album-artists era," Sexsmith said.
"I was raised on long-players by Elton John and Joni Mitchell, where the cover art and the contents all told a story. Where the music is meant to be in the foreground, not just sonic wallpaper. Call me stubborn or irrational, but I can't give up on that."
The hopeful rays of sunshine for Sexsmith - also glowing in "Long Player Late Bloomer" tunes like "Middle of Love" and the wedding-day natural "Miracles" - started pouring out after he and his wife shifted home base, temporarily, from chilly Toronto to a rent-free guesthouse bathed in New Mexico warmth.
Things got even better when he hooked up with producer Bob Rock "after the Juno [Canadian Grammy] Awards where several people [including fellow Canadian Michael Buble] nudged me to work with him. Bob loved the new songs, and his ideas were fantastic.
"And somehow we found the money to finance the project," with the help of his Canadian label and British song publisher. But it would then take a whole 'nother year after the album was done to place it with an American label (Thirty Tigers) and get Ron back on the road with a bus and band.
"I may take a financial beating with this tour, but I wanted people to hear these songs done right," he said. "Later, I may have to tour solo to pay off the debts."
Much of this travail and comeback drama also plays out, he says, in a six-years-in-the-making documentary on Sexsmith called "Love Shines," which unspooled recently at the South by Southwest music and film festival "and should be out on home video by the end of the year."
"Most of the screenings in Austin were up against the Foo Fighters film ["Back and Forth"], which had much longer lines outside its theater," he said. "But when all was said and done, our film won the Audience Choice award."