Canadian folkie Gordon Lightfoot's "Songbook" is, like most Rhino retrospectives, a coolly handsome, elegantly annotated and relatively conclusive collection. And like any set vainglorious enough to try to capture 19 albums and 30 years on a four-disc box, "Songbook" is far from definitive, but it ends up comprehensive enough for aficionados and neophytes alike.
For a time in the mid-'60s, Lightfoot was a songwriter's songwriter, earning hits for Peter, Paul & Mary and Marty Robbins. By the mid-'70s, his sonorous baritone and his tasteful arrangements had helped him earn his own audience as he reached his commercial -- and artistic -- peak. "Songbook" captures those early days, beginning with two songs recorded four years before his 1966 debut and then continuing on through hits ("Sundown"), misses ("Forgive Me Lord") and 16 unreleased tracks up to last year.
The middle two discs, which feature Lightfoot's wrenching 1970s output, comprise the heart of "Songbook." On the dirge-like, steely-eyed "Sundown," the singer struggles through a cheating relationship. The chilling "The Wreck of Edmund Fitzgerald" tells the story of a Great Lakes shipwreck with poetics that would make Dylan proud. With those songs, and on twangy cuts like "Borderstone," Lightfoot once again emerges as one of the premier folk songwriters during of the period.
The set does sag a bit around the edges. His earliest work was overly earnest, and in the '80s he slipped and landed somewhere between befuddled and easy listening. But even if certain cuts on the first and fourth discs can't further an overall appreciation of Lightfoot, they do paint a fuller, if not always pretty, picture. And there are even some hidden delights amid the later work, like the previously unreleased "Why Should I Feel Blue" (1982), a gentle, meandering tune about growing up. Unfortunately, the meditation is followed by a painful drum machine on "Someone to Believe In." Then again, few careers are filled end to end with masterpieces. A handful of unique, timeless gems should be enough for anyone, and Lightfoot has that, and maybe even a little bit more.