Last spring, I spoke with Gordon Lightfoot at his mansion in luxury-row north Toronto. We sat in his wood-panelled music room, among his amps, acoustic guitars and archaic tape decks. He showed me a sheet of lyrics from an unrecorded song called The Laughter We Seek. It was philosophical, I suppose, and rhyme-y.
Is it the laughter we seek; Is it the minds of the meek
Is it the answer in Greek; Is it the soul of the geek
Lightfoot was proud of it. “How’s that for an idea, eh?” he asked, with impish glee. "Now, how would I come up with something like that?”
The question was rhetorical, but I answered anyways. “Well, Gordon, you’re a songwriter, that’s how. Dylan told you as much, remember?"
The truth of it, though, is that Lightfoot is not a songwriter anymore. The Laughter We Seek was written in 2001 or early 2002, before he suffered a near-fatal abdominal aortic aneurysm later that year. It is one of the 10 old song demos he found tucked away in his house not long ago. Upon the discovery, he took the unearthed material and his vintage Gibsons down to Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studio, where he laid down the songs in the solo acoustic form we can now hear on Solo, his first studio album since 2004′s Harmony.
Lightfoot will tell you he finds songwriting to be a chore, something that he looks forward to as much as dental appointments. Unless someone has a gun to his head or a recording contract in his face, he no longer feels a compulsion to come up with rhymes for “Gitche Gumee.” He has not written much of anything new since coming out of his six-week coma in 2002. Which makes Solo a warranted cause for surprise, as much as one for celebration.
The agreeable folk-troubadour material is often reflective, with deliveries that are in no rush. A bluesy one called Dreamdrift is a playfully wistful number that captures the album’s essence with its tone and title.
Lightfoot unsuccessfully attempts to whistle on that song and another, proving that the act is not as easy as Lauren Bacall once famously said. Lightfoot’s voice? Acceptable for an 81-year-old with emphysema now and a tracheotomy in his past.
Speaking of the past, the verses of E-Motion have the seafaring feel of Lightfoot oldie The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The titular wordplay refers to modern ways of communicating, with Lightfoot hitting “send” on his self-loathing ruminations: “You know I’ve proven myself to be a king-size fool, should I still feel uncool or uptight?"
Musically, the material’s rhythms, tempos and song structures vary. Better Off has a faint reggae lilt. On the album-opening lead single Oh So Sweet, finger-picked notes fall like a light rain. On it, Lightfoot sings, “Stick to the mainstream, and we’ll be okay,” which sounds like career advice from his record-company men of the 1970s, when Sundown songs were in fashion.
Easy Flo is a love song as pleasant as the title suggests. On the droning Just a Little Bit, Lightfoot questions the humdrum – wondering about the routine of everything from picking up “dog doo” to constantly seeing the CN Tower. “Do you ever get tired of the blue jeans,” Lightfoot asks, and then answers: “Just a little bit.”
There was a time when Lightfoot was unavoidable as the CN Tower. Back then, some might have wondered what Canadian radio would be like without him. We found out. Now he’s asking, “Do you ever get tired of me singing this song?”
Not even a little bit.
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