Gordon Lightfoot: “Sundown”
Gordon Lightfoot is one performer who, by and large, has never carried over to my music listening as an adult in the same way as quite a few other singers and bands my parents listened to when I was a child. Which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate him: he’s written some great songs and has one of the best voices of all the “singer/songwriters” who came to popularity in the ’60s and ’70s (and beyond, but I’ll just focus on his contemporaries for comparison, because that’s where some of the strongest competition resides). And he’s Canadian. What’s not to love? I guess it’s maybe just that for every song of his that I love, there are just too many that don’t do a lot for me. Gordie (which I feel comfortable calling him, since he seems so approachable) has a tendency toward the over-earnest, sappy ballads. But re-listening to several of his albums a few days ago (these Days of Coronavirus will get people to do all sorts of things, don’t they?), I realized that the ratio of good to mediocre songs is higher than I’d remembered. It’s not like I’m going to start listening to all of his albums frequently, but there’s one in particular, 1974’s Sundown, that I think I’ll add to the annual rotation. There are a couple of songs I’d completely forgotten about — “The Watchman’s Gone” and “The List” — which are really good, and of course it has “Carefree Highway,” one of the high points of his breezier country-folk style. These three songs plus the title track make up 4/5 of what would have been Side 2 of the vinyl version of Sundown. So with the exception of the bland album closer, the Jim Croce-ish “Too Late for Prayin’,” Side 2 is pretty wonderful.
The biggest reason to love the album, no matter what else is on it, is the presence of its title track. (That would be “Sundown,” if you weren’t paying attention.) I have always loved the song, with its simple, steady beat but slightly ominous melody and lyrics. It sounds a bit sinister, really, what with the “creeping ’round my back stairs” line. Not really sure what it’s all about, but there are hints of prostitution, infidelity, gambling, and maybe even drug use — the mystery is part of what makes the song so god-damned interesting. And while Lightfoot’s lead vocals are characteristically fantastic, his multitracked backing vocals on the chorus are what put it over the top. The song’s economy of playing and singing are a marvel. Despite being built around a very standard chord progression, the melody stands out as unique. Cool little guitar licks skitter around the jangly rhythm strumming, and the bass and drums set a spare, steady course for ’70s soft-rock perfection. [Side note: Drummer Jim Gordon was the drummer in Eric Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes, and drummed for George Harrison, Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa, and many others.]
“Sundown” is easily one of the high points of a genre that almost by definition has few true high points: while the “soft rock” genre-naming may have been a creation of record-label marketing people, the range of music it encompasses wasn’t really designed for “high points.” It’s supposed to sort of blend into the background. But “Sundown” is by far one of its coolest moments, a song I feel the need to listen to every time I hear it come on the radio — on par with such precious gems of the early ’70s as Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” and Linda Ronstadt’s cover of “You’re No Good,” among only a few others. The closest Lightfoot would ever come afterward to this classic was “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” released two years later, which although great feels relatively overlong compared to the perfect “Sundown.”