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Old 01-23-2020, 07:55 PM   #5
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,630
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.


At Sundown Gordon is 36 years old and at the zenith of his power and leverage, a place more than 99.9% of musicians dream of and try for but fail to reach. With the advantages of wealth, platform, audience, and relative youth, he and his professional and personal dependents must have been looking ahead to many years of productivity. But the story played out differently. Why his standards began to slacken with the record following, why soon after the hits stopped happening, why after that his writing started to wilt and his baritone to thin and decay, with the result that his last 35 years’ recorded output has amounted to a short sad pile, is beyond me to say. But let’s stipulate that a ten-record-long streak of remarkably creative composing with a king’s ransom of royalties is an odds-defying feat, as is a three-year season in the sun as a muscular chart artist. If his slide needs explanation as anything other than the end of a lucky streak, we can guess at divorce, drinking, drugging, and constant travel. Waronker’s departure as producer in 1980 was another blow, for no subsequent producer came close to getting the same balance of organicism, shrewdness in arrangement, and aural dimensionality. And who knows but that pressures from label and audiences were psychologically deforming. It’s been known to happen.

Cold On The Shoulder (1975) and Summertime Dream (1976) yielded the hits “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” The first of these uses the phrase “rainy day” thirteen times across twenty-four lines, while “Fitzgerald,” despite its fine phrasework, is a single four-bar figure, repeated for five minutes and fifty-eight seconds. These labor-saving devices seem to signal a drop in agility and aspiration. And sure enough, the next few years saw a steep rise in dull metric blocks, limpid childlike novelties, and anaphora-driven stanzas. Half of the lines in 1978’s “Sometimes I Don’t Mind” begin with “sometimes,” and 12 of the 22 lines in 1980’s “Dream Street Rose” begin with the title phrase. 1981’s “Canary Yellow Canoe” consists of alternations of “I want to [insert verb or verbal phrase] in my canary yellow canoe” with names of rivers. Likewise, Lightfoot’s melodies, which previously offered occasional scalar shifts and interval jumps (e.g. the very cool one-octave leap in “Mountains and Marianne”), began to sound like copy-and-paste fragments of major scales. Possibly this was a utility-driven development, since his voice was beginning to deteriorate.

There were sideman changes. Red Shea retreated step by step, first from roadwork then recording. His replacement was Terry Clements, whose minimal, bluesy style made for some lucid signatures and perhaps slotted into a quintet more easily than Shea’s, with its never-say-die prodigiousness. But these chin-scratching terms can’t hide the way I feel. For me, much of the flavor, as well as the groove, drained away when Shea left. In 1975 Barry Keane joined the traveling band, beginning his impressively long stint as Lightfoot’s sole drummer, on road and record.

If you’ll permit me a sidebar, I don’t know what authority decreed that Gordon Lightfoot’s music, like all other commercially viable music these past 70 years, must have non-tonal banging in the form of a drumset mic-ed six or ten ways. A thousand various objects, hit with as many other objects, can make a groove. These include not only woodblocks hit with mallets and storm drains hit with human breath but, more conventionally, piano keys hit with fingers and, as on dozens of Lightfoot tracks, guitar strings hit with metal picks. When a drummer is fitting a song into a metronomic frame, announcing locational specifics (dit-dum dit-duh-dum — chorus), and little more, it’s uncertain what value he’s adding to the music. Most of Lightfoot’s songs are rhythmically transparent; their bars don’t beg to be firmly subdivided with kick and snare, nor new sections set up with broad strokes, for us to know where we are. It’s supererogatory, and often annoying, as when characters in plays delineate their motives or spell out their back stories, or when facial reactions to dramatic events in movies are shown in close-up. A drumkit has become a basic necessity in much modern music, and yet the kit is much less important than who’s sitting behind it. A non-creative drummer is very often like a brash flight attendant standing over you and explaining how seatbelts buckle.

Late Lightfoot is essentially the sound of many seatbelts clicking into a locked position. We hear chord triads cleanly defined by multiple, “scientifically tuned” instruments, with the bass note that is the name of that chord at the bottom. We hear performance policed by percussion, and percussion policed by click-track. We hear Lightfoot concentrating powerfully on singing right in the middle of each note, without emotion or dynamism, each syllable weighted equally. Madness! Meanwhile, his lyrics still show an understanding of a listener’s need for ambiguity, incompleteness, ends left hanging. It’s just too bad the rest of his music doesn’t.


I found the records from Dream Street Rose (1980) through Harmony (2004, and for now his swansong as a release of new originals) to be so dispiriting, I had to limit my exposure. A few minutes in and a penumbral gloom would settle upon me. I had begun the project during a slow work month. Now one month was bleeding into the next, and I was deep in the grim chore of vetting the last several records. I hadn’t anticipated all these flat, digitized productions, flat melodies, tiresome progressions, units of shaped sound fitted neatly into slots.

Here’s a stanza from the 1993 song “Wild Strawberries”:

People often ask me just the way it must feel
To be standing up here with you down there
Let it now be known that throughout all of these years
I have been wearing polka-dot underwear

If you think that’s funny then you fracture easier than I do. However, the openness to underwear humor at least indicates neural activity: time to retire the Handsome Harry persona and try a modified, age-appropriate angle. The only light I found in these records was some movement in that direction, the direction of maturity. You hear looseness, account-taking, reflections on decades past, resignation, regret. Age gives a writer a potential privilege or two. The raw material of emotion can be more objectively manipulable in recall, can take on a tint of uncontrived tragedy, and can be mined more sensitively for universally applicable meanings. The writer only needs the stamina to sort through the baggage.

continued in next post
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