Unlike his last album, Cobblestone Runway, which saw him experimenting with more electronic sounds than his, Retriever is a straight-ahead singer/songwriter album with undistorted electric guitar and piano laying the groundwork for the Canadian performer's wonderful melodies and delicately plaintive voice.
Sexsmith has a knack for taking a good set of lyrics and fusing them with a melody that elevates the words beyond what they read on paper. With a self-deprecating understatement, Sexsmith says that with Retriever, "on a few of the tracks I think I've finally figured out how to write a chorus."
He certainly does have solid choruses throughout, plus verses that match and engaging lyrics as well.
The first single, "From Now On," is a terrific pop song, which, on the surface, seems like a simple song of empowerment—but a closer reading shows a sense of disquiet about current events. "We live in times where choice is frowned upon, afraid to even raise our voice in song," he sings. "Or speak our minds for fear of falling on the wrong side of opinion/Where has freedom gone?" Sexsmith has described the lyric as a song about vigilance in an age of fear-mongering "prop-agenda."
Some of Sexsmith's other lyrics also hint at darker situations. He refers to soldiers being sent off to war ("For the Driver") as well as people selling their dignity on reality shows ("Wishing Wells").
But though Retriever is about troubled times, it's more about the odds and ends of interpersonal communications than today's headlines. Sexsmith sings a cautionary children's tale about "Imaginary Friends," and he describes the track "How On Earth" as the most romantic song he's ever written.
One of the album highlights is his homage to 1970s-style soul (particularly Bill Withers), called "Whatever It Takes." Similar to Josh Rouse's musical valentine to 1972, Sexsmith evokes that period honestly and without camp.
Three songs feature piano contributions by British singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt (who also sings backing vocals on "From Now On").
Retriever is a fine release, and a welcome new stretch of the winding path of Sexsmith's career. Those who retrieve it should not be disappointed.