Monday, February 23, 2015

Unfortunately Indistinct Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind Is Not Gordon Lightfoot’s Best!

The Good: Great voice! Some good lyrics
The Bad: SHORT, Dull instrumental accompaniment
The Basics: If You Could Read My Mind is both Lightfoot’s best-selling original album (under its original name Sit Down Young Stranger) and one of his most boring works!

So far in my study of Gordon Lightfoot’s musical works, I have discovered that I like Gordon Lightfoot’s music and that I find I am enjoying his works in almost the opposite of most of his fans! As a result, some of his celebrated albums with awesome charting singles have left me unimpressed and some of his albums that flopped because they didn’t have a “hook” single have been the ones I enjoy listening to the whole album over and over and over again (I listen to every album I review at least eight times before reviewing it!). So, it is something of a contrarian opinion that I have on If You Could Read My Mind (the album is identical in content to its original name Sit Down Young Stranger).

If You Could Read My Mind is Gordon Lightfoot’s sixth studio album (his first on Reprise) and while it might be his best-selling non-compilation album, its success might be based more on the advertising hype than the quality of the work. If You Could Read My Mind easily falls into the “indistinct” category, where a generally good work has so many songs that sound so similar to one another that listening to the album on replay it becomes something of an auditory mash. Any one of the songs on If You Could Read My Mind are (at the very least) good, but as an album, this album is dragged down because all of the songs have the “one man with a guitar” sound to them (despite there being additional instruments on several tracks.

With only eleven songs clocking out at 36:44, the biggest strike against If You Could Read My Mind is that it is short. The album is mostly the work of Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot wrote all of the songs, save “Me And Bobby McGee” (which, as it turns out was co-written by Kris Kristofferson and was only covered by Janis Joplin?!). Gordon Lightfoot plays guitar or piano on each song (depending on which instrument is dominant on the track) and he sang all of the lead vocals. The only major creative function Lightfoot was not involved in was producing or engineering the album. Given that he was well-established by the time If You Could Read My Mind was released, it is hard to imagine that this was not the creative direction Lightfoot wanted for the album.

Vocally, If You Could Read My Mind is brought down by the quality vocals of Gordon Lightfoot. That might seem like a contradiction, but there is a narcoleptic quality to listening to If You Could Read My Mind because almost all of the songs, save “Baby It’s Allright” have Lightfoot singing slowly, smoothly and hypnotically. His vocals throughout the album are clear, but generally slow and somewhat sad.

Instrumentally, If You Could Read My Mind is very much the sound of one man and a guitar. It is hard to imagine that an acoustic version with Lightfoot unsupported by backing harmonica, bass, or mandolin would sound too different from the full-studio version of the album. The clarity of the songs makes it almost inconceivable that Lightfoot didn’t sue the crap out of Bob Dylan! Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm,” which was released five years after If You Could Read My Mind has virtually the same tune as Lightfoot’s “Sit Down Young Stranger!”

Lyrically, If You Could Read My Mind is a good, but not superlative, album. This is very much an album of Folk ballads and the raw emotionalism of many of the songs is appealing, but Lightfoot has done similar sentiments better elsewhere. That’s not to say that lines like “Open the door my pretty one / Wake from your sleep and take me home / Open your eyes and look my way / I cannot leave your love alone” (“Your Love’s Return”) do not perfectly capture the passion and yearning that make it relatable, but hearing it with such an indistinct tune makes it harder to be grabbed by the lines.

It is easy to see why Lightfoot originally named the album Sit Down Young Stranger; “Sit Down Young Stranger” is a beautiful folk song that is very much an archetype for the Folk-Country tradition. The conversational tone of the song is revealed through the lines “I'm standin' in the doorway / My head bowed in my hands / Not knowin' where to sit / Not knowin' where to stand / My father looms above me / For him there is no rest / My mother's arms enfold me / And hold me to her breast / They say you been out wandrin' / They say you travelled far / Sit down young stranger / And tell us who you are” (“Sit Down Young Stranger”) and it is well-executed.

Some of Lightfoot’s poetics on If You Could Read My Mind are a bit more esoteric, though. After listening to the album more than ten times now, I don’t think I could quote a single line from “Saturday Clothes.” And I have no idea what it means to be “Approaching Lavender” (is “lavender” a euphemism for a drug?! A love interest? A hooker?). Lightfoot repeats the title a number of times and the song has good poetics – “If you'd like to try your hand at understanding lavender / Then you must be very sure / That life is not a game / You might even learn a thing or two approaching lavender / You'll soon be on a one night tour / Forgetting your own name” (“Approaching Lavender”) - but it seems to work better as a poem than a song.

Played on repeat, “The Pony Man” easily blends back into “Minstrel Of The Dawn” and that creates a pretty much continual loop that is not bad – it is in the lower portion of average in my rating system – but it is, most certainly, underwhelming.

The best songs are “Sit Down Young Stranger” and “If You Could Read My Mind;” the rest of the album pretty much just blends together.

For other Gordon Lightfoot albums, please check out my reviews of:
Endless Wire


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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