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.
But then it’s true that I’ve never written an “Early Morning Rain.” By the most gimlet-eyed count, Mr. Lightfoot has managed to get his body into the elusive electrical field and to produce songs this unimprovable at least half a dozen times. This puts him easily in the top tenth of the top one-percent of living songwriters...
On a simpler human scale, we can admire this man’s work ethic, his decision against following up any particular hit song with another of its kind, his devotion to his players, his sheer longevity. Let the record show that he avoided some of the traps of his long era: no disco, wah-wah guitar, or delay-drenched snare drums mar his work. His early recordings — this hit me pretty hard — have a springtime glow to them. He sounds gleefully drunk on his own aliveness and potential. I can control my voice at the extremes of its natural range, write a symphony about a ten-thousand-year geological epoch, and make women bring me coffee on a silver tray besides! Who wouldn’t be gleeful?
“Pussy Willows, Cattails” (a Russ Meyer-like vision of “catbirds and cornfields… slanted rays and colored days… naked limbs and wheat bins”
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