Gordon Lightfoot Album Reviews
GORDON LIGHTFOOT'S "SHADOWS": A RARE CRAFTSMAN AT WORK
Is Gordon Lightfoot the best songwriter
of modern times? He has written and recorded upwards of one
hundred and fifty songs, of which at least ninety
are not only "keepers" but demonstrably superior, in one way or
to most of their contemporaries. I know of no one else who has lately
such quality in such quantity. He's at it again in his
"Shadows" with eleven new ones, and ten of them are beauties as
as they are elegantly structured.
What makes Lightfoot great, I think, is his believability, a quality that probably also explains his successful and graceful assumption of the role of No. 1 post-commercial folkie. He is amply equipped with the credentials to Cole Porter his way through life, being one of the few pop stars who are comfortable reading music, one of the few with a background as an orchestrator and one of the few with such command of the English language that he can use wordplay as an end in itself. And so he writes with the folkie's sense of what is real even as he writes with the trained musician's awareness of the many possible ways of expressing it.
Of course, he's also inordinately gifted. His melodies are so natural sounding you find yourself thinking there's no excuse for their not having existed before. How could a tune so "right" as the one to "Triangle" not have been thought of already? A New York newspaper reported not long ago that we are, according to some smart-ass computer, running out of melodic possibilities. If so, Gordon Lightfoot doesn't know it yet. But if you've ever tried to invent a tune yourself, you know that the possibilities don't come easy; the melody of "Thank You For The Promises" for example, is pulled by minor chords into a downward spiral and make you think, perhaps, of Jacques Brel. It may sound now as if it had been just hanging there in the air all the time, but it took a special ear to seize it and write it down.
"Shadows" is full of these nice touches, full too of songs for which there are precedents - but only in the earlier work of Lightfoot himself. "Heaven Help The Devil" whose forerunners include "Too Late For Praying" is the kind of generalized, generally pessimistic social commentary Lightfoot occasionally writes: "We have been captured by the thieves of the night / Held for ransom if you please." Lightfoot's two other approaches to making social comments, both as nonspecific in their own ways, involve work songs such as "Cotton Jenny" or what he calls "topical" songs such as "Circle Of Steel" or "Cherokee Bend". Similarily, the title song here is a throwback to another, softer kind of song Lightfoot has written before. But each new invocation of these composing modes has its own sound and its own special qualities. "Shadows" while fitted with quite an active melody, has a whole slew of seven-syllable lines followed by an eleven-syllable "resolution" that paradoxically leaves things still about halfway up in the air.
But I don't have to go into detail to show you there's a rare craftsman at work here; you'll hear that right away. And if you can listen to "Triangle" just once without lifting the stylus back for a quick second helping, you must be one of those perverts who can eat just "one" chocolate-chip cookie. The song is about the Bermuda Triangle, and the words are the imaginings of a sailor who's about to sail through it. It isn't quite as striking as its recent precedent, "Ghosts Of Cape Horn" but it is much more infectious.
"I'll Do Anything" is almost as strong, although the sentiment it expresses strikes me as uncomfortably close to masochism. As I suggested before, only one song, "Blackberry Wine" shows any real weakness. It and "In My Fashion" (bailed out by a nifty lyric) are variations on the droning kind of thing Lightfoot experimented with during the "Old Dan's Records" days, when he was fascinated with what he called the "E-drone position" on the guitar (he showed it to me once, but I still can't descibe it). So is their livlier and catchier cousin here, "Baby Step Back" a soft rocker worthy of Fleetwood Mac; it also has the great groove sense of "Sundown" but it's not that catchy.
The instrumental sound is a further refinement of the acoustic/pedal-steel/synthesizer blend first struck in "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald," still possibly the most restrained use of the synthesizer going. This album mutes the synthesizer sound maybe even more, being in all about as acoustic as "Summertime Dream" one of Lightfoot's best. "Shadows" doesn't rank at the very top of his work, but ten keepers out of eleven is still semi-remarkable, and you have to consider how high that top is. So, to get back to the question at the beginning: "Is Gordon Lightfoot the best songwriter of modern times?" As his compatriot Ian Tyson might put it, "Hell, yes!"