By the time he released his 12th album, Gordon Lightfoot was a well-established presence in the music world. Born in Orilla, Ontario in 1938, he began singing at the age of four and learned piano and drums by his teens. He taught himself folk guitar and began writing songs, moving to California at age 20 to pursue a musical career. Strongly influenced by the acoustic folk of Pete Seeger and Ian and Sylvia, he survived by writing and producing jingles. California wore thin, and he moved back to Canada, slowly building a reputation as a skillful songwriter and sensitive singer. Signing with United Artists in 1965, he spent the balance of that decade releasing acclaimed albums that barely sold outside of Canada while a legion of other artists achieved success with his compositions. He moved to reprise records in 1970 and found his first international success with If You Could Read My Mind, a gold single that established him as an artist in his own right. He released an album every year — including the U.S. chart-topper Sundown — building his commercial and critical success. Not coasting on that success, he created his finest work in 1976, recording his most consistent and powerful album.
Summertime Dream is classic Lightfoot, a mix of ballads, lightly political folk, and personal/confessional songs all anchored by his matchless songwriting and wonderful voice. A rare album without a trace of filler, it features ten tracks that show off both his consistency and variety in one lovingly crafted package.
Things kick off with the energetic Race Among the Ruins, a beautiful making-the-most-of-life track. It features one of Lightfoot’s nicest vocals and showcases the care with which he picked his musical collaborators. The band is tight and sympathetic, backing his poignant musings with precision and charm. One of his better songs, it clearly fits in the Lightfoot songbook. The second track was an amazing surprise. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is an unlikely #2 hit about a real life shipping disaster in the Great Lakes. Musically complex and compelling, it features an unforgettable bit of guitar magic that propels the tragic tale flawlessly. Lightfoot mixes the personal, the historical, and the natural in a seamless folk blend, creating what is justifiably one of his best-known songs.
The next three tracks explore more familiar territory with fresh energy. I’m Not Supposed to Care could be a weary song of resignation; instead, Lightfoot imbues it with real emotion, giving it just the right mix of bitterness and nostalgia. I’d Do It Again is a great song of determination, featuring more of his wonderful vocal work over a driving rhythm. Never Too Close mixes hope and caution in a very real, plausibly human way. These three songs demonstrate the talents that made Lightfoot a star songwriter long before he became famous in his own right.
Protocol is a rare political song, with the singer looking at the myriad ways we create heroes out of darker forces. Starkly anti-war, it rose above the anti-Viet Nam songs of the day with its broader, historical look and features another of Lightfoot’s strong vocal performances. The House You Live In adapts the folk tradition of the welcome stranger, brightening the album with a note of hope. Summertime Dream is just that, a fun romp through idyllic days. Sprightly and joyous, it builds on that note of hope, showing the value of simple pleasures.
The singer gets wistful on Spanish Moss, a nice tale of lost days. Although the closest to stock Lightfoot on the disc, it features some nice playing and singing, reminding us that on most albums it would be a standout. Things wrap up nicely with the mysterious Too Many Clues In This Room. A dark view of so-called progress, the song finds Lightfoot pondering what we give up in the race for success. It serves as a perfect counterpoint to Race Among the Ruins, making this musical journey a complete, coherent look at modern life. Gordon Lightfoot recorded a number of fine albums and scores of wonderful songs. With Summertime Dream, he brought all the pieces together in his most fully realized and beautiful accomplishment.
FURTHER LISTENING: Lightfoot’s lengthy, impressive career fits into three basic sections. His United Artists years include some amazing performances and strong songwriting. All four albums are available on the two-disc The United Artists Collection. His hit-making years started as he shifted labels and came to an end shortly after Summertime Dream. Most of those hits are available on the strong reprise best-of Gord’s Gold. Rhino’s Complete Greatest Hits isn’t really quite that, but it bridges those two periods plus a bit, providing a nice overview for the casual fan. Lightfoot’s output since the 70s has been slow but still strong. No single compilation really captures this period. Serious fans who want a good overview without buying every album should check out Songbook, a four-disc set from 1999 that provides a solid look at his career, focusing on more than just the hits. For single albums, the most essential other than Summertime Dream was his best-selling, the strong folk-blues disc Sundown.