April 27, 1972
Janet Maslin, Rolling Stone
Gordon Lightfoot may never seem to be doing anything all that unusual -- his melodies tend to be simple, his subjects seldom original, his voice is nice enough but rarely lends itself to anything fancy, and in fact the whole genre he works in is anything but new. But Lightfoot, unlike virtually all other folk artists who started out successful in the early Sixties, has managed to mellow so gracefully (and without any need for a current comeback, or any gratuitous shots at rock and roll) that he's at his absolute strongest right now, as Don Quixote and the album before it bear witness. Even though -- or perhaps because -- what he doesn't isn't nearly a unusual as the fact that he does it so well.
Lightfoot's music has gotten so tight and polished, all the while sustaining a deceptive sense of effortlessness, that the weaker strains of his early days have virtually disappeared. His sentimentality now seems genuine but controlled, and it is less dominant than in the past. He has learned how to avoid sounding self-indulgent in love songs, or affected when he sings about being on the road. His key to sidestepping the obvious pitfalls of his subject in the tough, quietly understated masculinity he's able to maintain throughout whatever situation he cares to describe. The toughness is something of a surprise, coming hand-in-hand with a relatively gentle sound, and the incongruity undoubtedly accounts for a good part of his mystique.
The rest of his appeal must certainly stem from his considerable gift for songwriting, which is easy to underrate. He combines the kind of voice that never seems to do his material justice with deceptive simplicity, a highly sophisticated ear for clever rhyme structures, and a unique knack for elevating subjects that could easily have been mundane. And, prolific as he's been over the past ten years, Lightfoot has never degenerated into hackdom. His writing, like the rest of what goes into his recordings, has improved steadily with age.
Starting around the time of his first and only hit single ("If You Could Read My Mind"), Lightfoot has assembled three albums of unassailable quality. The first, originally titled Sit Down Young Stranger but retitled for the hit it contained, linked the excesses of his earlier work with a toned-down, more studied new sound that marked an enormous improvement. The next album, Summer Side Of Life, had a first side that should have been minted in gold, although side two never quite measured up. While Don Quixote is too evenly paced to match the best moments or dazzling versatility of its predecessor, it has no such noticeable lapses either. It is consistently good, beautifully produced, as well-played as ever (Lightfoot has added guitarist Terry Clements to his fine bass-guitar team of Rick Haynes and Red Shea), and a fitting next step in a career of steady improvement.
Certain structural strains from the past two albums tend to repeat themselves here, such as his use of the opening cut to present the album's dominant image of a romantic, mysterious traveler (here he's Don Quixote, last time the hitchhiking minstrel of "Ten Degrees And Getting Colder"), and the long, ambitious conclusion ("The Patriot's Dream"). In between, he seems to have shifted away from the straight storytelling he handles so well, using more mood pieces than usual (up for "Alberta Bound," down in "Looking At The Rain," and somewhere in between with the slow, dreamy "Christian Island"). The album has its closest thing to weak moments with the slightly mawkish "Beautiful" and melodramatic "Susan's Floor," which Lightfoot didn't write (Shel Silverstein did). But they are more than made up for by "Ode To Big Blue," a terse little ecological-style number about a whale.
"Ordinary Man" has a fine melody and sounds like a possible single. So does "Second Cup Of Coffee," indirectly telling a story of broken marriage with a typically clever refrain about reaching for the phone. It's the kind of song that sounds so immediate and familiar that you're certain you must have heard it before, the only question being where. But still it's as original as everything else he does, fresh and unique behind a familiar-sounding facade. I just don't know how he does it.
The fact is I can't quite figure out how he does any of it, really, but I do know that his material never wears out, just gets more interesting all the time. Gordon himself keeps getting better and better, and that's one knack I hope he never loses.
- Janet Maslin, Rolling Stone, 4/27/72.