The album title is ironic: He’s not trying to sugarcoat things at all. If anything, these songs are stated bluntly, at least for him, though coated with his soothing vocal tones. The opener “Found,” Sexton says, is “mostly about trying to change myself, see the likeness in others rather than the differences. If we can be united, it’s much harder to be manipulated.”
That’s the album in a nutshell: A very personal quest to find a common humanity. It doesn’t sound political at first, but it is. “We are under attack as a people,” he maintains, “if you’re not a member of the ruling class.”
His musical perspective has changed since the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The title song mentions the fall of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, and he says, “I’ve woken up a bit to the cause of the attacks. I can’t just sing about falling in love, or just be an entertainer anymore.” He believes the events were a “false-flag attack” by rogue elements in our government, to galvanize our country into going into wars.
Part of the record is pure autobiography: “Long Haul” describes the arc of his career since his first record in 1990. From the outset, he tailored himself as a musical “black sheep,” the title of his 1996 album. “I still am, and always was,” he admits. The 10th of 12 children in a Catholic family, he was always getting into trouble.
1992’s In the Journey was a collection of demos, so in some ways Black Sheep was his true debut, and the stretch from that album through The American, Wonder Bar and Live Wide Open, taking him to 2002, is one of the most remarkable runs of any American songwriter in recent memory, especially coming from someone who began the ’90s busking on the streets of Boston with borrowed equipment to whomever would stop and listen.
But then, not every street musician can sell 20,000 copies of an album like In the Journey out of his guitar case, or has such a worthwhile item to purvey. His releases since then, on the Kitchen Table label he founded in 2002—including Live Wide Open, Camp Holiday, Solo, Seeds and Sugarcoating—have become even more individualistic. 2008’s Seeds debuting at No. 8 on Billboard Magazine’s “Heatseekers” chart says volumes about the ability of non-mainstream label releases to sell big.
Running his own imprint, he’s as much a black sheep as ever. “I don’t have big-label guidelines; I’m operating outside the mainstream.” He’s part of a music industry that’s becoming more the province of small, indie artists and labels, but he’s one of the more visible members. “If everyone did what I did, there wouldn’t be a need for large corporations.”
It’s hard for him to discern how his style of playing and singing has changed over the years. “It’s like watching grass grow,” he shrugs. “Earlier, I didn’t have a firm grasp on who I was as a singer.” Highly self-critical, he finds his previous vocal manner an affectation that has fallen by the wayside. His voice has matured, while retaining its youthful passion and enthusiasm. In a sense, it’s the best of all possible worlds—his voice has stayed very personal while expanding to be able to express more universal concerns.
Many critics are heralding the new album as Sexton’s best, and it includes some of his best songwriting, as well as production that holds together his most ambitious collection of themes while remaining intimate and highly listenable. Most of all, it conveys the personal touch he has always applied to his music. He’s his own worst critic, but says, “I think Sugarcoating holds up. It has legs. It has good craftsmanship, inspiration and heart. It’s honest.”
He should know.