You just have to laugh when you see something called “Complete” Greatest Hits. Complete? Says who?
I don’t see “Ribbon of Darkness” on Complete Greatest Hits, and where is “Bobby McGee”? I do see 20 terrific songs that you shouldn’t live your life without. Gord’s Gold is the benchmark, but because it’s missing Gordon Lightfoot’s best known song — “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” — it isn’t enough. (Gord’s Gold also featured two sides of re-recordings because Lightfoot supposedly couldn’t listen to his early work.) The best way to get “Edmund Fitzgerald” and Lightfoot’s other best known songs in one purchase is to go for Rhino’s Complete CD.
The experience starts with “Early Morning Rain” from Gord’s first LP Lightfoot! (1966). Gord’s calling cards are two: his baritone voice, and his songwriting. “Early Morning Rain” shows of the perfection of both. You’ll get chills. “In the early morning raaaaaaain…” Undoubtedly, Gordon Lightfoot is one of Canada’s greatest songwriters of all time, and “Early Morning Rain” is all the evidence you need. If that’s not enough, there are fortunately 19 more incredible tracks.
“For Loving Me” from the same LP boasts some intricate acoustic picking and more of that voice. The vibrato, the control, the expression…nobody could touch Gordon Lightfoot. In recent years his voice has been reduced to a powerful whisper, but nothing on this CD dates past 1986. His voice is double-tracked on “Go Go Girl”, another unforgettable song from 1967’s The Way I Feel. His storytelling lyrics always make you wonder who and what inspired the songs. “Only a go-go girl, in love with someone who didn’t care. Only 21, she was a young girl, just in from somewhere.” There’s so much there between the lines, while the acoustics pluck away in dense patterns.
After three succinct beauties, here comes Gordon’s epic: “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”. The Canadian Pacific Railway was built on hardship and dreams, and Gord captures that and more in a multi-textured composition. “An iron road runnin’ from the sea to the sea.” Not only is this song his greatest lyric, but the diverse vocal parts could be his strongest work. Hard to imagine that that he was only on his second album.
1968 brought the brooding ballad “Pussywillows, Cat-tails”. Backed by strings, the dream-like song paints a picture rather than spelling out a story. “Naked limbs and wheat bins, hazy afternoons.” Then “Bitter Green” is brighter, though with similar countryside imagery and a story about lost love with a twist ending. Moving on to 1970, “If You Could Read My Mind” is one of Lightfoot’s most renowned songs. It went to #1 in Canada, and in 1997 it hit the dance charts in a cover version by Stars On 54. Gord’s version is one of the most passionate laid to tape. Written about a divorce, the feelings were raw.
1971 brought the bright “Cotton Jenny” and the uplifting “Summer Side of Life” from the album of the same name. The latter features subtle organ and rich backing vocals, broadening the palette. “Beautiful”, a soft and romantic ballad, came from 1972’s Don Quixote, and hit the Billboard Hot 100. This CD then skips past the #1 album Old Dan’s Records (Complete Greatest Hits, huh?) and goes straight to “Sundown” from the album of the same name. I always loved the front cover of Sundown, with Gord in sandals smoking a cigarette in a barn. For the first time, there’s an electric guitar solo, but the song is most notable for the strong chorus. “Carefree Highway”, also from Sundown, has lush strings and another chorus that is impossible to forget. I highly recommend playing this one while driving down country roads on a Sunday afternoon. “Rainy Day People” from 1975 (the same year he did the Gord’s Gold re-recordings) features more backing instrumentation than earlier material. The lush, countrified music didn’t do him any harm when the track went Top 10 in Canada (and #1 on the adult contemporary charts).
All this leads to “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, probably the greatest songs about a sea tragedy ever written. With a big electric guitar as the main hook, the song is completely unlike all the Lightfoot hits that came before. There is even a soft synthesizer part. It went to #1 on every applicable chart in Canada, and #2 in the US. Though simpler in structure, “Edmund Fitzgerald” is the only song to rival “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” as his greatest epic. It’s also one of Gordon’s most chill-inducing lyrics, with a vocal part to match.
Everything after this can only seem anticlimactic. “Race Among the Ruins” is the strongest track post-“Edmund”, as Gordon included country slide guitars and other accoutrements. The final five (“Daylight Katy”, “The Circle is Small”, “Baby Step Back”, “Stay Loose” and “Restless”) are not slouches, but simply not as striking as the earlier songs. Though the recordings are more sophisticated, it’s hard to top your earliest hits.
The liner notes to this CD point out that your first exposure to Gordon Lightfoot was probably via a cover. Perhaps Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, or the Tragically Hip. I suggest making “Edmund Fitzgerald” your first Gordon Lightfoot if you haven’t heard one of his classics already. This CD is the best way to get it.
* Deke, have you ever listened to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald while sitting on the shore of lake gichi-gami? That’s on my bucket list.