Forever Endeavour is the thirteenth album from a man now in his fiftieth year. It is a collection of songs that in some ways seems as comfortingly familiar as the tousled mop in the picture on the cover. The velvety voice is unchanged, the tunes have an easy timelessness as if he has fished them from a never-ending flow somewhere in his head and blended them with the arresting observations and phrases that he loves, to make them into new versions of old favourites. But it is an album that at the same time turns away from the confident, almost rockier style of his last one, Long Player Late Bloomer (“exuberant” said FFS at the time), to something much more melancholy. It is a record of a man looking back at his life.
Possibly this has something to do with the health scare that Sexsmith underwent in 2011, when a lump in his throat thankfully turned out after a wait of many weeks to be benign. Since some of the songs pre-date this episode and the arrangement of them all came afterwards, maybe it is easy to overplay this as an explanation; but the darker tone is affecting with this in mind. The mood is set by the the gorgeous horn lament in the opener, ‘Nowhere To Go (But Down)’ – in many ways the most memorable song, although one knows straight away that there will be no late blooming this time around.
As he looks back in the early part of the album, he recalls the moments when he hit the bottom (“I know where nowhere is”) and in ‘If Only Avenue’ he reflects on what might have been: “With the luxury of hindsight, the past becomes so clear. As I look out on the twilight, my days have become years”. Even when he knows it is time to up the tempo in ‘Snake Road’, the focus is firmly on the past and the temptations of youth that must not be revisited.
In such a contemplative collection, it is perhaps inevitable that after this lovely start the album sags in its middle, when the melodies aren’t strong enough to lift the listener out of the introspection. Then, in the last third there are some wistful images for those of us still drawing comfort from his familiar face: “Through our hands it slips away, through our hair a touch of grey”, before the mood is lightened in jazzier style by the thought of listening to favourite old records with a bottle in one’s hand in ‘Me, Myself and Wine’ (does Joan Armatrading feature among the records, one wonders?). It seems that middle-age has its compensations.
Sexsmith tries hard to end on an uplifting note – the love song ‘She Does My Head Good’ injects a restrained bounce, and in ‘The Morning Light’ we emerge from sleep, accompanied by a rather beautiful if mournful bassoon, to something that ends up gently looking forward. It seems clear that the change of tone in Forever Endeavour is the conscious choice of a singer growing old gracefully, reflected in the return to long-time producer Mitchell Froom, in preference to the style of (the aptly-named?) Bob Rock. Froom is apparently responsible for the orchestral accompaniment to Sexsmith’s acoustic guitar in most of the songs, and it fits them well, the occasionally over-sweet strings in the less successful songs compensated for by the brass at the start and woodwind at the end.
Of course, the most frequently-made observation about Sexsmith’s music is that it is so much less appreciated by record buyers than by the critics and his prominent musician fans (Dylan and Elvis Costello notable among them). While Forever Endeavour‘s title suggests he wants to keep trying, it sounds as though on occasions he wants to Sneak Out The Back Door and is resigned to continuing to write for himself and those that value him. For us, there is still gold in them hills, even if Sexsmith won’t be digging much out himself.
Words: James Garvin