Perfect Pop Songs #4: Ron Sexsmith’s “Right About Now” (1999)
It’s been a while since I added an entry to this series, and I’m going to try (again) to do things a bit more regularly (if you need to catch up, this search will show you the original three postings plus a few references to them). There are a few other songs in the hopper, but I’m going to delay discussing them for a bit to move a song by Ron Sexsmith to the front of the queue. I wrote briefly about him before and used near-hyperbole to describe what I liked so much about his songwriting: his ability to tell complex, compelling stories, often in three minutes or fewer. In his lyric-writing, such stories rarely contain resolutions; and his melodies, harmonies and delivery—coupled with the choices made by the other recordists working on a given track—provide other access to other dimensions, present other points of entry.
“Right About Now” is just such a gem. I first heard it on Whereabouts (1999), the last album from Sexsmith’s late ’90s contract with Interscope. That label’s support was perhaps crucial in allowing him to work with producer/keyboardist Mitchell Froom and producer/engineer Tchad Blake, whose joint credits include celebrated recordings by Crowded House, Suzanne Vega and Los Lobos, among others. Their aesthetic comprised odd uses of microphones, eschewal of lush reverb and creative misuse of processing gear, on one hand, and unconventional stereo positioning in mixes, on the other.
The track under discussion announces the latter techniques in its first nine seconds, with an electric piano panned hard right, guitar hard left, electric bass in the center, and the drums occupying a space spanning the center to the hard right. As odd as the positioning might seem (there’s a stark hole on the left), it provides a lush backdrop for the entrance of Sexsmith’s plaintive singing voice. The song’s lyrics evoke a standard love song conceit in the first verse: things are difficult, and I wish you were here. The first chorus structurally indicates that the story is perhaps more complicated. If we count the song with bars having two beats, its structure seems fairly straightforward up to that point. That is, every section or mini-section is some multiple of four: the intro is four bars; the first verse eight; the pre-chorus four. The chorus (0:31) upsets what seems a regular progression, though, with three two-beat bars followed by one three-beat bar and then four two-beat bars, e.g., 2+2+2+3+2+2+2+2. That extra beat in the fourth bar is a puzzling departure, one that might be setting the stage for what’s to come.
The second verse (starting after 0:46) predictably complicates matters. That is, it raises the question of why things are so difficult. The song’s protagonist feels he has transgressed some boundary in some way, but he’s not sure how, and he would try to make things right—if he knew his sin. When the song’s bridge arrives (at 1:22 [!]), the arrangement slightly changes along with the protagonist’s perspective. That is, strings enter partially filling out the sparseness of the arrangement, especially on the left side of the stereo spectrum. At the same time, the singer seems to have figured things out. The final verse (at 1:52) is a self-referential songwriting analogue to the breaking of the fourth wall: yes, this is a song; no, it is not sufficient to the task at hand. The strings re-enter for the final pre-chorus, chorus and coda, and listeners are reminded—through a cliché about the heart speaking—that the singer needs his beloved, but the reasons why he needs her (him?) remain ambiguous. Indeed, what started as romantic in the simplest sense seems to have taken a sinister, unsettling cast by the end.
What’s astonishing to me is this whole narrative plays out in two minutes and forty-nine seconds. The story is indeed complete, but it leaves many questions unanswered—in the same way that a haiku is a complete thought that nonetheless raises further issues. And it’s that lack of resolution, that quality of things suspended and open to interpretation, that makes this such a wonderful track…