June 30, 1999
A testament to Lightfoot's songwriting prowess
Ted Shaw and Windsor Star
A collection like this four-CD box set begs the question among true fans: What's here is great, but where the heck is...?
Where's Wherefor and Why, for instance? Where's Talkin' In Your Sleep? Where's Black Day in July? Where's Race Among The Ruins?
After some 19 albums and nearly 40 years of singing in public, Gordon Lightfoot's first career retrospective is long overdue. There have been greatest hits albums, a three-CD collection of his first five United Artists albums and packaged sets of re-recorded songs.
But thanks to California-based Rhino Records, this is the first serious attempt to assess the entire body of Lightfoot's work and to put his achievements into some historical perspective.
That begs another question: Why didn't Warner Canada do something like this long ago? Why did it take an American to assume the initiative?
If we knew the answer to that, maybe we'd be halfway to understanding the enigma of being Canadian. Maybe Lightfoot himself had a lot to do with it, taking a cue from Mark Twain: "The
rumors of my death are exaggerated."
A collection like this does tend to write off a career. But there's plenty of fight left in the 60-year-old Lightfoot, yet.
The 88 songs here are testament to his songwriting prowess. Even when his fading glory as a performer has trouble putting them across, there's no denying the melodic and lyrical strengths of later gems like A Painter Passing Through, A Lesson In Love and Waiting For You.
Few songwriters of his generation have better articulated a life in turmoil.
In simple, graceful lyrics and unforgettable melodies Lightfoot has sung about unfaithful love, storm-tossed freighters, battles with the bottle and the urge to chuck it all and drop out.
The Circle is Small is a brutally honest assessment of love on the rocks. Did She Mention My Name? demonstrates how hard it is to go home again. In My Fashion is painful self-analysis. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Canadian Railroad Trilogy rank among the best ballads ever written.
Lightfoot has wrestled with many personal demons in pursuit of his art, of course. And they are chronicled with startling frankness in Nicholas Jennings' essay here.
The collection also includes great, unreleased tracks that deserved a better fate. Stone Cold Sober, which has cropped up from time to time in his concerts, exposes his alcohol addiction. There are songs from the 1960s that showcase his youthful exuberance and
marvelous baritone -- You'll Still Be Needing Me and A Message to the Wind. From mid-career, there is the cleverly worded Too Much to Lose and two songs which could still be hits, Never Say Trust Me and Lifeline.
Even his discards were better than many of his contemporaries' charting singles.