On his 13th and arguably finest album, Summertime Dream, Gordon Lightfoot continues to shine not so much for what he does but for how well he does it.
Many artists share his folk/rock terrain and lyrical preoccupations. But few writers boast the sophistication or emotive impact of Lightfoot at his best. And only a handful of singers possess his ability to combine romantic sweetness with road-wise toughness in a stance that proves neither saccharine nor affected. Equally important, while Lightfoot has waxed an occasional weak or idiosyncratic effort (e.g. parts of Cold on the Shoulder), he has developed a deserved reputation for consistency that only a rare veteran performer can match.
Underlying that consistency is the artist’s knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses. As Summertime Dream well demonstrates, he has the capacity to adapt and grow without ever overextending himself or losing sight of his long-established course.
While the new LP is more electric than previous ones (reflecting a shift to bigger concert halls), for example, the singer wisely avoids any temptation to push his basic style toward full-fledged rock. Neither does he let his trademark sound suffer from the departure of longtime sideman Red Shea; employing the talents of guitarists Rick Haynes and Terry Clements more generously than on earlier LPs, Lightfoot nicely fills the gap.
The production offers a similar case in point. Sharing that task (with Lenny Waronker) for the first time, a lesser artist might have dictated changes simply to gratify his own ego. But Lightfoot, apparently satisfied with his past albums’ sterling production, smartly eschews tampering with a successful formula.
Similarly, while the program seems a bit more topical than on previous Lightfoot LPs, the four best songs find the artist re-examining familiar territory. A sure-to-be-covered instant standard, “I’m Not Supposed to Care” is a melancholy love ballad that limns specific emotions yet remains oblique enough to allow for listener identification. The same can be said for the lilting “Never Too Close” and the subtle, well-sung “Spanish Moss.” And the irresistibly hooked title track, an even better singles prospect than last year’s “Sundown,” offers exuberant vocals and a fine showcase for guitarists Clements and Haynes.
By comparison with these tunes, the remainder of the program seems a bit prosaic. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a true tale about an ore carrier that sank with its crew last November, does offer a deftly worded narrative; but neither the subject nor the music proves capable of sustaining interest over the song’s five and a half minutes. While quite pleasant, such other tracks as the pensive “The House You Live In” and the advisory “Race Among the Ruins” fail to leave much of a lasting impression.
But this is quibbling. By my count, the scorecard shows six good songs and four unassailably superb ones. Lightfoot—who, significantly, included printed lyrics for the first time here—has good reason to feel pleased. So do we all.