Clayton Denwood, |
Sunset on the Highway
(Four Square, 2001)
Clayton Denwood has a voice that demands to be heard. He describes himself as a ceremonial balladeer, with musical influences "from Beethoven to Ray Charles." But these songs truly stand on their own; they are beautiful, touching, blazing, aching, poetic and heartfelt. His talent for songwriting is truly unique, that of a poet far behind his rightful time. The first time I heard him play, I experienced such a naked emotional response to the understated power of his songs, I could not rest until I had this record in my hands. Denwood writes without affectation and with a raw honesty that can't be denied -- where there is sorrow it is tinged with hope, where there is a smile there is the memory of pain, and at the end of a journey there is the struggle in its completion.
Recorded in Toronto at Monumental Sound, in a studio Denwood helped to build, Sunset on the Highway is the result of physical and emotional toil; the triumph and effort is there throughout. Juno-winning producer Joe Dunphy is one of several impressive collaborators, including Larry Johnson (pedal steel), Josh Hicks (drums/percussion) and Dennis Mohammed (bass). Denwood himself plays harmonica, 6- and 12-string guitars, piano and organ.
It's difficult to know where to start; perhaps at the beginning is best: the opening track, "Only You," is a love song, sort of a prayer and a tribute to the kind of love that corrects our mistakes and follows us even down the "foolish rocky road" we have chosen. The title track is the true story of a prodigal son coming home. Denwood spent a number of years living and creating in Woodstock, N.Y., until a trip to visit family in Canada turned into residence in his hometown of Toronto. We watch this story unfold as the bittersweet relief mingles with hope for the future and the sun sets on a proverbial highway.
"Sorry (if I love you...)" is a joyful ode to the helplessness of true love, with a shuffling rock beat and a killer harmonica solo. "King of his Hometown" sees Denwood in a more introspective frame of mind, as a struggling songwriter making his way through all the broken promises and postponed dreams.
Johnson's pedal steel takes a prominent place on a trio of tunes: the country ballad "Real Thing," the blazing roots rock anthem "Sanctified" and the hopeful "Work." The record closes with "Downstream" and "Home," love songs rich with imagery and truth.
I've gone back and forth on this in the months since "Sunset" came to me, but the song I find myself pondering most often is "Make Me Whole." The lyrics are the most poetic on the record -- they are so perfectly chosen that I can't imagine one being replaced or cast aside: "be my laughter when all is sorrow/be my tears when I can't weep/and I will be the promise that forever you may keep/be the vision that leads me onwards/be the voice that can still my rage/and I will be the epic tale that will leap off of your page/for worthless is the ragged trail/when we walk it all alone."
It's not folk, not rock, not country -- or at least none of them exclusively. Sunset on the Highway is a songwriter's proclamation -- one I feel privileged to have experienced.