Gordon Lightfoot Album Reviews

by Noel Coppage - Stereo Review


        Gordon Lightfoot takes a turn for the quiet in "Dream Street Rose," a subtle album that at first seems oddly impersonal coming from Lightfoot, a private man who, as private men sometimes do, tends to make his work intensely personal. And at first it seems regressive; the songs sound (superficially) like some he was writing ten years ago, and the instrumentation, including the return of acoustic guitars to prominence, sounds (superficially) like the pre-"Endless Wire" stuff.  A casual first impression might be that it is some kind retreat from the experimentation of that last album.
        That impression would be wrong,for this is the musicianly side of Lightfoot stretching out to bring you a lot of little new things rather than a few big new things.  In fact, it represents a refinement of the lyrical aspect of his lyrics.  The words of Sea Of Tranquility, which at first seem so ignorably casual, gradually ingratiate themselves because they have an easy rhthym reminiscent of one of our better poets: "There's rivers of rainbow and grey mountain trout / And little dark holes where the varmints hang out...." Sea is a fantasy, if, on the surface, a still obtainable one - a place of otters and frogs and spotted grounghogs - but the song's language is both literal and symbolic at once.  Make Way For The Lady purports to be off-handedly autobiographical while it points out one of the ways (practice!).  But it, too, is symbolic; it uses a bluesy tune to keep its optimism under control, and there's an under-the-surface tension in it.  Mister Rock Of Ages is a sort of prayer Lightfoot does now and then (Too Late For Praying is a prime example), and it is also talkative between the lines. It shows that Lightfoot has distanced himself more than the usual amount from this type of material.  It is non-linear the way the blues can be, a series of couplets that don't seem to need to be in any particular order.
        That song and several others, including Hey You ("Hey you, upon this ship of fools / I have found you bending your own rules"), also represents refinements in Lightfoot's way of lifting cliches out of everyday language (or, in the case of Whisper My Name, everyday tunes), mixing them up into his own special blend, and giving them another dimension of meaning.  This, of course, is what the fine arts have always done with the folk arts.  One of the ways Lightfoot shows that he's more artist than journalist is pretty much to ignore the transitory cliche (his language is never super whatchacall hip) in favour of the long-term one: "bless my soul," "sad repair," "time on your hands," even "beneath the halo'd moon" - stuff the old folks and the young folks can understand.  Not to mention the future folks.
       The same is true of the melodic archetypes he recycles, such as the upbeat Anglo-Saxon one in Whisper My Name or the two (beautifully fitted together) sea chanteys in Ghosts Of Cape Horn.  These aren't up to the minute musical cliches like the Little River Band is working with, but old-timers that have proved themselves.  It is Ghosts, however, that is all but a clinic in how (and how well) this sort of thing can be done.  I believe somebody commissioned Lightfoot to write it to go with some visuals and it providentially came out both timeless and new; it captures its subject so well that you can't separate how it's done from what it's doing.
        The album also represents a refinement in instrumentation and sound.  The rakish synthesizer wail scraping against Pee Wee Charles' steel guitar, born in The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald, is here set off against more acoustic than electric guitars, providing for greater contrast and making it easier to hear the lyrics.  This particular album has all this enhanced, plus a good, clean background, plus a spectacularily transparent bass and terrific stereo imaging, thanks to digitally recorded master tape. There are, in fact, two ways to go about greatly hastening your appreciation of it, and you can choose according to whether your thing is style or content.  One way is to play some of it on the old guitar or something, noting such things as how unexpectantly satisfying the chord changes in On The High Seas are, and the other way is to listen to the tape in an automobile system set up for whiz-bang stereo effects.  The mettallic part of the evolving ensemble sound is lonesome and nautical, suggesting chains clanking in the wind.  The acoustic part is more open and flexible than the pre-"Endless Wire" sounds were, with Lightfoot more often finger-picking the rhthym on a six-string guitar instead of using his familiar flat-pick roll on the twelve-string.  But I did say evolving.  There are no radical changes - the twelve-string is still there, on the appropriate songs, augmented with an autoharp, and the new sound is a step, not a jump, beyond what we have heard before.
        Of course it isn't the perfect album for all seasons. The kids can't very well bop to it, if that's what you want.  And the inclusion of Leroy Van Dyke's The Auctioneer - which Lightfoot's been doing live, faster than this, for years - has a tacked on quality.  It's one of those songs best kept on the stage and out of albums.  Apart from that, the album's biggest "failing" is that it can sound like background music if you want it to.  It doesn't break down any barricades to get through to you.  It has a way, though of sneaking around them.  By the time you realize you're really listening, you may already be hooked.